Over the past generation, Iceland underwent a remarkable transformation that saw its youth go from Europe’s biggest consumers of drugs, alcohol, cigarettes to its lowest. How Iceland saved its youth is a lesson plan for parents, educators, and legislators in the U.S. as well.
The story begins in 1992, when researchers in Iceland asked virtually every child between the ages of 14 and 16 to complete a survey on their drinking, smoking and drug habits. The results were shocking and a wakeup call to adults across the tiny island-nation.
Nearly one-in-four teens claimed to smoke daily and more than 40 percent admitted to being drunk during the previous month.
More revealing, however, was that researchers could predict the kids most at risk. The data clearly demonstrated that kids who were participating in organized activities, spent time with their parents, stayed home at night, and felt cared about at school were far less likely to engage in at-risk behaviors.
Common sense, yes, but with empirical evidence to support it.
PSAs No Match for the High
What was equally apparent was drug and alcohol awareness campaigns were ineffective. Kids were turning a blind eye and deaf ear to such warnings. Because the simple truth was and always has been, that teenaged brains are wiring themselves for dealing with stress in unique ways.
For some kids, the stress was a high they craved and, as such, they turned to specific activities to intensify such feelings. For others, the stress was something to be avoided, and as such they sought specific drugs to numb those feelings. In short, with few other options, the kids were using alcohol, drugs, sex, smoking, and petty crime to deal with biological impulses.
So what did Iceland do?
A Nationwide Call to Action
The campaign kicked off with a nationwide plan (Youth in Iceland) that, among other things:
- Changed laws to making smoking before 18 and drinking before 20 illegal
- Banned tobacco and alcohol advertising
- Imposed a curfew prohibiting kids 13-16 from being out past 10 during the school year and midnight in the summer
Funding was provided by the state to create new clubs for sports, music, art, theater, dance, martial arts, etc., providing kids with healthy, natural, and more positive alternatives to dealing with their stresses. So, for example, a child who thrived on stress might join a sports group where another, more introverted type, might seek an artistic pursuit
Equally important was a renewed focus on adult participation in and commitment to these clubs. Training and networking sessions were created to better help both club managers and parents alike to understand and work with kids. Parents were encouraged to sign agreements outlining steps they personally would take to help their kids.
A Huge Success
Have these efforts worked? Big time.
For starters, the percentage of 15- and 16-year-olds claiming to have gotten drunk over the preceding month dropped from 42 percent in 1998 to just 5 percent in 2016. At the same time, marijuana use dropped from 17 percent to 7 percent and smoking plummeted from 23 percent to just 3 percent.
Why the success? Back to our old friend, common sense. The kids have healthy alternatives; they’re more engaged with their parents and other adults; this nationwide commitment demonstrates to the kids that they matter; and the adults in their lives are provided with improved skills for dealing with kids.
Can it Work in the U.S.?
Researchers are quick to note that Iceland’s tiny population of roughly 335,000 people is no comparison to the U.S. and its 325,000,000 people. Implementing a campaign across a nation that barely equals a single mid-sized U.S. city is a relative cakewalk.
That said, however, the U.S. has resources a nation like Iceland scarcely can imagine. But more important than that, these campaigns ultimately must start at home, with parents. As the Iceland study showed, a commitment by the adults closest to the kids – parents, educators, club volunteers – are the key to success.
Read more about the Iceland youth program here.