Monday, August 14, 2017

Iceland Has Cleanest-living Teens

I’m always in favor of moving toward civilization, along with freedom and prosperity. So when I see an example of where it’s happening, I get interested. That’s why I read a story about Iceland I came across this week (the story first appeared in January 2017). It seems they’re doing something right:

Many of Iceland's teens are involved in sports.
Image from here.

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 per cent in 1998 to 5 per cent in 2016. The percentage who have ever used cannabis is down from 17 per cent to 7 per cent. Those smoking cigarettes every day fell from 23 per cent to just 3 per cent.
The story is long, and detailed, about what they’ve been doing. So I’ll try to condense it, hopefully without leaving out essential information.

American psychology professor Harvey Milkman was involved in learning about drug addiction back in the 1970s. He learned not only why people would choose particular drugs, depending on their approach to stress, but also why they would continue. He figured out that people were on the verge of addiction before trying drugs, and then the addiction followed their style of coping. He published in his doctoral dissertation that heroin users wanted to numb themselves; amphetamine users wanted to actively confront it.  According to the article:

Milkman was instrumental in developing the idea that people were getting addicted to changes in brain chemistry. Kids who were “active confronters” were after a rush—they’d get it by stealing hubcaps and radios and later cars, or through stimulant drugs. Alcohol also alters brain chemistry, of course. It’s a sedative but it sedates the brain’s control first, which can remove inhibitions and, in limited doses, reduce anxiety.
So, if people were trying to change their brains, it seemed plausible that they would be willing to do things that would change their brains without the downside of using drugs or alcohol. That led him to develop a project of activities for teens that offer a natural high. By 1992 he was conducting a program in Denver, Colorado, called Project Self-Discovery, targeting youth in trouble for drugs and petty crimes:

“We didn’t say to them, you’re coming in for treatment. We said, we’ll teach you anything you want to learn: music, dance, hip hop, art, martial arts.” The idea was that these different classes could provide a variety of alterations in the kids’ brain chemistry, and give them what they needed to cope better with life: some might crave an experience that could help reduce anxiety, others may be after a rush.
At the same time, the recruits got life-skills training, which focused on improving their thoughts about themselves and their lives, and the way they interacted with other people.
Meanwhile, in 1991 Milkman got invited to Iceland, to see if he could share his research and implement a program there. Attention on his ideas grew, and change began with data gathering. Youth ages 14-16 filled out questionnaires with questions like:

Have you ever tried alcohol? If so, when did you last have a drink? Have you ever been drunk? Have you tried cigarettes? If so, how often do you smoke? How much time do you spend with your parents? Do you have a close relationship with your parents? What kind of activities do you take part in?
From this they learned what bad shape their next generation was in. But they also learned what activities did seem to work to divert young people toward better behavior. The full list of protective behaviors is something we ought to look at more closely:

[P]articipation in organised activities—especially sport—three or four times a week, total time spent with parents during the week, feeling cared about at school, and not being outdoors in the late evenings.
It’s not enough to just get kids involved in extracurricular activities. That’s helpful, but only within a setting that actually reduces teen stress. And, wouldn’t you know—it takes family.

The way Iceland has implemented their program is interesting. Normally I dismiss anything that is top-down and government controlled. (And I don't want to see yet another government program to control our kids' lives in this country.) But, with this relatively smaller, relatively homogeneous country, they have managed to get good results—not just by putting money into extracurricular classes, but by educating parents, encouraging and arranging for more family time, and getting more parental involvement in schools--things we used to see in this country some decades back.

They have continued to gather data with those questionnaires. So they have—if not proof that there is a causal relationship—evidence that the markers they were looking to improve are getting better and staying that way.

They have been able to export the questionnaire, and therefore various local versions of the program, in Europe and in countries across the world. And they have enough data now to show that what has worked in Iceland can work elsewhere.

Mostly, though, other places pick and choose what to do, leave something out—something important, like being required to be home in late evenings—and they get lesser results. Still, teen use of alcohol and drugs have trended downward wherever some form of the program has been tried.

Inga Dóra Sigfúsdóttir, who was voted Woman of the Year in Iceland in 2016, comments on her country competing well on the world stage in activities as diverse as football (soccer) and music. She says,

We learned through the studies that we need to create circumstances in which kids can lead healthy lives, and they do not need to use substances, because life is fun, and they have plenty to do—and they are supported by parents who will spend time with them.
I don’t expect this government program to be implemented in the US. It could be done at a local school district level, if enough resources could be put to it. But it isn’t really about a government program—whether that program works somewhere in the world or not; it’s about what is done in individual young people’s lives.

There are some non-governmental groups that have excellent success at keeping teens on a healthy path, even without Iceland's program. Among these is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which emphasizes family, and works with families to inculcate principles that lead to life happiness for all members.

There are going to be variations, of course. But we Mormons do involve our young people in a lot of activities that bring meaning and accomplishment. And we have set aside times for families to spend together. In a larger society, getting that family time is still going to cause some issues. But families regularly spend much of their Sundays, and also their Monday evenings together. Youth often get up early, before high school, to do scripture study together. Parents set examples by not smoking or drinking, and by serving in the home and in the larger community. And usually they encourage education and extracurricular activities.

Brigham Young University, my alma mater, sponsored by the Church, proudly holds the title Number 1 most stone cold sober university for 20 straight years. Students have the advantage of, not only having fun during their university years; they were thinking clearly enough to remember it. So the program extends beyond high school years.

This was in this week's alumni update, linked to here.

Another group with success is homeschoolers. Besides having better than typical success at getting into college, homeschooled youth tend to be involved in several extracurricular activities a week. And, by definition, they spend a lot of time with their families, with a lot of involvement and attention from parents.

So, it’s helpful to have the data of a government program. But it’s really about families doing what families must do to be civilized. Having a whole community agree on what that looks like is helpful. But no amount of government intervention and control can accomplish the desired ends without individual parents and families moving toward civilization.

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