To the casual observer, how young people’s alcohol use is reported in the news may seem rather chaotic. The steady decline in young people’s drinking has been approvingly pointed at for years. Yet on the other hand, today’s youth are suspected not so much of creeping sobriety as of a shift towards illegal intoxicants, which inevitably involves a plethora of associated adverse impacts. The media also report on drinking binges among adolescents in small towns.
Statistics show that a critical attitude to alcohol adopted as a child does not survive to adulthood. Two online services for young people maintained by the A-Clinic Foundation, ‘Nuortenlinkki’ (Youth Link) and ‘Varjomaailma’ (Shadow World), commissioned a survey from Taloustutkimus to explore what the intoxicant culture is that is encountered by Finland’s young people reaching independence.
The views expressed by young people themselves knock the wind out of some of our most clichéd conceptions. For instance, it is by no means the case that young people have migrated en masse to cannabis. Fewer than one in six young people have even experimented with cannabis. Of those young people who drink alcohol, 20% report using cannabis, but on the other hand no fewer than 98% of cannabis users report that they also drink. In other words, cannabis has not replaced alcohol as the intoxicant of choice for young people.
Desire for a healthy lifestyle reduces interest in drinking alcohol
Many of us who are experts in the fields of health and social services stress the overwhelming impact of regulation and control on the choices of the individual. Yet very few young people are of the opinion that alcohol being difficult to obtain is a major factor in abstention from alcohol. Quite the opposite, in fact: no fewer than 47% of young people reported that the desire for a healthy lifestyle reduces interest in drinking alcohol. Many young people who use drugs feel the same way.
The desire to live a healthy life is a good and factually sound reason to be critical of one’s own alcohol use. It would be important for us to understand – and by ‘us’ I mean all adults, not just those of us who professionally educate the public about intoxicants – that young people make choices about intoxicant use on rational grounds. So let’s at least give young people credit for being sensible about managing their lives.
The content and tone of public discourse, down to the choice of individual words, shape and create reality. What is said in public is, by definition, the truth. The Finnish way of drinking as we understand it inevitably and without exception applies to all Finns. If we report, falsely, that the trend among young people is to switch to cannabis, then many young people will believe that this is indeed the culture today and will follow that supposed trend. If we repeat often enough that the culture cannot be changed, then it cannot be changed. Perhaps we have managed to convince our young people to not even try to change their ways: The previous generation has already decided how today’s young people will drink when they grow up.
A desire for a healthy lifestyle adopted early in life is an attitude that one would assume would survive to adulthood, and indeed it does, but it is joined by a host of other motivational factors at just about the age when alcohol becomes legally available. We stereotypically imagine that peer pressure towards drinking is caused by a desire to bolster an as yet feeble self-esteem and by a desire for social inclusion. However, no more than about one in five young people who use intoxicants agreed with these statements in the survey. By far the greatest agreement was with the statement that being drunk with friends is fun: 54% of the respondents more or less agreed with this.
Young people feel that they are thrust into an adult role too early in life
For some young people, intoxicant use on the threshold of adulthood involves worrying features. Young adults are more likely than minors to report that they drink because they are sad, bored or stressed. More than 10% of the young adults in the survey had used alcohol in each of those states of mind. One takeaway from the survey was that many young people that they are thrust into an adult role too early in life. It was particularly touching that those who had witnessed alcohol abuse by their parents were more likely than others to wish that their parents would still ask them how they are doing. Those who come from the most difficult circumstances and who therefore probably need support the most are also those who are the most likely to lack parental care.
We influence the intoxicant use of young people at least through our own example and by the way, we talk about it. In word and deed. But perhaps the greatest impact of our words and deeds comes from what kind of a fellow human being we want to be for young people. Do we talk to them, listen to them and care about them, and are we reliable as adults and parents? A good home is the best intoxicant education. If a young adult – still scarcely out of childhood – feels that he or she has the support of an older, reliable adult, then the probability of needing to drink because of stress is reduced.
Our survey does not point to any specific reason why the trend towards a more critical attitude to alcohol among underage children does not survive into adulthood. Perhaps we are looking at this the wrong way around. Perhaps instead of worrying all the time we should be happy that, compared to decades past, an increasing percentage of our children are spared the risks of alcohol use, even though the decline in the overall consumption of alcohol has been much more gradual among adults and even halted momentarily in 2018.
The thing is, every adult can in word and deed undertake personally not to uphold the notion of our supposedly inexorable culture of drinking to get drunk or to perpetuate the belief that alcohol is an appropriate cure for sadness or stress. So monitor yourself. Should you do something about the model you are projecting? It is easy to identify the features in your alcohol use that you would not wish your child to replicate. And what about the way you talk about alcohol? Examine it as if you were reading the fine print and between the lines.