Here is an edited version of an Opinion Piece I wrote for ABC Online way back in January 2008.
If you believe the media you would quite honestly believe that we now have the ‘worst group of young people in the history of young people’. Current affairs programs and radio shock jocks love to tell tales of young people out of control, that we have higher rates of drug use than ever before and that drinking rates are through the roof.
I have been in an extremely privileged position over the past decade or so. Almost every week over that time I have been asked to speak to school communities right across the country about alcohol and other drug issues. I get to speak to a range of people about this subject and I continue to feel extremely positive about young Australians. So many of them are doing wonderful things, have made great choices and have amazing futures in front of them. When do we ever talk about them and celebrate the good things about our children?
Now that’s not to say that we don’t have a problem. There is drug use occurring and unfortunately those who do experiment tend to do it at a younger age, putting them at much greater risk. However, as far as illegal drugs are concerned we are talking about a small group and constantly highlighting the minority sends very confusing messages to that much larger group who have not used. They often feel like aliens and are often convinced that drug use is the norm, even though that is not their personal experience. Shouldn’t we concentrate on the majority who don’t ‘do the wrong thing’ and send a positive and empowering message?
This is particularly true when it comes to alcohol. This is the drug that we should be most concerned about when it comes to our children, but we have been so conditioned to worry about illicit drugs that alcohol use is often regarded as almost a rite of passage. It has become so normalised in our society that it really should come as no surprise that some of our young people are drinking at high levels and experiencing great problems.
Adolescent drinking should really come as no real surprise – simply examine the role models that our children have to follow. What do they see in their own home? How do their parents socialize? What is the one constant at almost every celebration in our society – whether it be a birth, a death, a victory or a loss? Their parents come home after a hard day at the office and what is the first thing they do? They have a drink to relax. They use a drug to get through the evening, to relax and wind down after a stressful day.
Even so, when you examine the statistics around alcohol use, you quickly realize that young people are not just one large homogenous group. They can be broken down to three key groups, two of which we rarely acknowledge. The first is the loudest and the most obvious, those young people who drink to excess. There is much debate whether this group is growing or not – I don’t believe it is, although it is quite clear that they are drinking at much riskier levels and getting younger.
The next group are the ones that drink responsibly. They don’t drink regularly and when they do drink they consume a small amount. This does not mean that there are still not risks involved for these young people but we do need to acknowledge that they are trying to do ‘the right thing’.
Finally we have the abstainers. An interesting fact that is rarely talked about is that between 20-25% of 16-17 school-based year olds have never drunk alcohol. We never speak about these young people and their decision; in fact we completely ignore them, making them feel even more alienated that they feel already within their peer group. I can’t begin to tell you how many students come up and speak to me after a presentation thanking me for acknowledging them during my talk. Constantly focusing on the at-risk drinkers is doing incredible damage to these young people who have made the decision not to drink.
What I find particularly illuminating are the types of questions that young people are generally interested in. They pretty well follow one theme – how can I keep myself and/or my friends safer? We do have a very caring group of young people in our society. The things they are interested include the following:
- How do I look after a drunk friend?
- One of my friends drinks far too much. I’m worried about her, what can I do?
- Are there any ways to prevent a hangover?
At a time when our younger generation is getting a ‘bad rap’ from the media it is important that we maintain some perspective. In actual fact we have a group of young people who are genuinely interested in collecting information on keeping themselves and their friends as safe as possible. Unfortunately we are so obsessed about providing them with information that we think they should have that we are neglecting to give them the information they really want and need.
Our kids are great, not problem free, but great nevertheless. It’s time we acknowledged all of the wonderful things they do and spoke about the majority of young people and the positive life decisions they make. Alcohol is the major drug problem with this group and all parents need to ensure that are well-informed about the risks associated with adolescents and drinking. It is also vital that all parents attempt to arm their children with information and skills to look after themselves and their friends during the difficult period known as adolescence.