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Iceland Fixed Its Teen Substance-Abuse Problem By Giving Them Something Better To Do

As it turns out, drugs and alcohol are most appealing for teens who are bored or stressed–less so for those who have outlets.

Iceland Fixed Its Teen Substance-Abuse Problem By Giving Them Something Better To Do
[Photo: drcooke/Getty Images]

In 1992, Iceland had all its 14, 15, and 16-year-olds fill out a survey about their experience with drugs and alcohol. 25% smoked daily, and over 40% had gotten drunk in the past month. Since then, Iceland has implemented a kind of radical common sense, and the problem has been all but solved.

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Writing for Mosaic, Emma Young details the changes:

Today, Iceland tops the European table for the cleanest-living teens. The percentage of 15- and 16-year-olds who had been drunk in the previous month plummeted from 42% in 1998 to 5% in 2016. The percentage who have ever used cannabis is down from 17% to 7%. Those smoking cigarettes every day fell from 23% to just 3%.

To achieve this amazing rescue of the nation’s youth, Iceland hired U.S. psychology professor Harvey Milkman, whose research in New York and later Denver suggested that drugs and alcohol are people’s ways of dealing with stress. Milkman discovered that people choose uppers or downers depending on how they prefer to cope. Booze and heroin numb the user; speed, cocaine, and other stimulants let people confront their problems.

But Milkman wondered why people start, and then continue, taking drugs. “That’s when I had my version of the ‘aha’ experience,” he told Young in Mosaic. “They could be on the threshold for abuse before they even took the drug, because it was their style of coping that they were abusing.”

[Photo: Three Lions/Getty Images]

Milkman went on to found Project Self-Discovery in Denver, an initiative to give kids alternatives to drugs and crime. “The main principle was that drug education doesn’t work because nobody pays attention to it,” Milkman said in Mosaic. So instead, he gave them something better to do. Kids could choose to learn music, dance, hip hop, art, and martial arts; the program also taught them life skills. It was a success. Soon after, Milkman was invited to Iceland to discuss the work, and now he lives there.

This is when the first drug-and-alcohol-use survey was taken, and the surveys are still conducted every year, to keep the data fresh. To curb Iceland’s drug-abusing, booze-swilling youth, simple measures were implemented under a plan called Youth In Iceland. Alcohol sales were banned for anyone under 20, and the age limit for tobacco was set at 18. Kids aged 13 to 16 were placed under 10 p.m. curfew in winter; midnight in summer. Also, each local district now comes up with communal pledge, which parents sign. “For kids aged 13 and up, parents can pledge to follow all the recommendations,” Young wrote, “and also, for example, not to allow their kids to have unsupervised parties, not to buy alcohol for minors, and to keep an eye on the wellbeing of other children.” Parents also patrol their neighborhoods to keep an eye on the local kids’ behavior.

At the same time, parents are encouraged to spend more time with their kids, and kids are directed do out-of-school activities. In Reykjavik, families get a Leisure Card which gives each child $300 a year to spend on activities.

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In the program’s first 15 years–from 1997 to 2012–kids spending time with parents doubled, as did the number of kids doing organized sports. “Meanwhile, cigarette smoking, drinking, and cannabis use in this age group plummeted,” Young wrote.

Iceland is now exporting its model to around 35 cities, which have organized under the title Youth in Europe; the surveys and programs are tailored to fit local needs and problems. And it’s working. Alcohol and drug use is dropping in participating cities, and in Bucharest, teen suicides have also dropped.

Could this model come to the U.S.? Maybe, but it has to start small and build from the ground up. One key difference is population size: All of Iceland contains around 330,000 people: roughly the same as Cincinnati. Trying to implement such a strict, consensus-driven program in an increasingly divided country of 325 million people, like the U.S., would be a much steeper task. But even at the city level, there’s no guarantee that a formula will fit every community. Like in Europe, each metro area would have to take into account radical differences in resources and culture.

And there’s also the fact that politicians like to see short-term successes; community health programs in the U.S. are typically funded by short-term grants, whereas in Iceland there’s a long-term financial commitment. U.S. politicians want fast-track policies that will shine on their next election, not a scheme that will pay off in 20 years. Which, perhaps, indicates a much larger issue: Long-term thinking is exactly what we need in every corner of our world right now.

About the author

Previously found writing at Wired.com, Cult of Mac and Straight No filter.

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