Sunday, 1 July 2012

Are our kids really that bad?

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.

Are Australians really the world's highest users of illicit drugs?

The annual release of the UN World Drug Report always creates a flurry of media interest in this country (I would imagine the rest of the world doesn't really take much interest in the contents!) mainly due to Australians and New Zealanders usually being awarded the dubious title of "the world's biggest drug users." This year was no exception!

According to the report, annual use of all drugs, except heroin, in our two countries "remain much higher than the global average". The latest available data suggests that New Zealand has the highest prevalence of the use of cannabis, with Australia not too far behind, and our use of ecstasy, although falling in recent years, continues to be the highest in the world.We are certainly seeing increasing availability of cocaine across the country and rates of use appear to be rising accordingly.

So what is the story? Are we actually the world's largest consumers of drugs and how is this report put together?

When you look at reports like this you need to remember that it incorporates information from countries all over the world. These countries all have very different legal and political frameworks, some with extremely limited capacity for collecting quality population data, particularly when dealing with information around the use of illegal drugs and some certainly have an agenda when presenting their data to an organisation like the UN. To look at these results without a very critical eye is extremely dangerous - certainly all the data we have suggests that Australians appear to have high rates of illicit drug use - but really, how can you compare our data with countries like Thailand and Indonesia, when admitting to drug use in those countries can result in life sentences in jail or even death?

There are two main factors that could contribute to the higher rates that need to be considered. Firstly, it is believed that Australians are generally more forthcoming about their drug use. We live in a society where researchers can put an advertisement in the paper to recruit for a study and drug users will come forward without fear of arrest or intimidation. There are not many countries in the world where that is the case. Even US researchers are often very surprised when that hear about how easy it can be for their Australian counterparts to collect illicit drug-related information.

Secondly, and most probably more importantly, we have great data collection instruments. The National Drug Strategy Household Survey (where most of the Australian information for the UN report was sourced) is one of the world's best. With a large sample and a questionnaire that is regularly updated, it provides accurate and up-to-date information on Australians' use of drugs that is extremely useful. It certainly isn't perfect and is often used inappropriately but it really does allow us to track trends over time. To compare this data to some of the information used in the UN report from other countries is highly problematic.

My concern about the media constantly pushing this UN line is the message it sends to the community, particularly young people. Certainly illicit drug use continues to be an issue but there are some promising signs that we rarely talk about. Use amongst secondary school students continues to fall across almost all drug types and we still need to remember that most young people choose not to use drugs! I continue to meet young people who actually think there is something wrong with them if they don't take drugs and media stories on reports like this just reinforce those beliefs.