Saturday, 26 August 2017

Drugs aren't everywhere, not everybody's doing them and not all teens get drunk: The 'rite of passage' myth!

Earlier in the year I wrote a piece on research that found alcohol use had declined amongst young Australians. Although many readers welcomed the figures and saw them as a reason to celebrate our teens, sadly, some people refused to believe what they read. You only have to look at some of the comments on my Facebook feed to see that there are those who are never going to accept that some teens are going to make healthier choices. Some simply thought the researchers got it wrong and the data was inaccurate whereas others chose to believe that teens were using illicit drugs instead (even though the research does not support this). Here are just some of the comments:
  • "I don't know where you get your figures from and I doubt the accuracy of them"
  • "I find that a little hard to believe when you drive around on a Saturday night in the Hills Area particularly where there is a party involving 14-17 year olds ..."
  • "Drugs. Cheap, easy to get.....I could go on. Any other reason is just simply being deluded"
  • "Because they all pop pingers and snort coke instead"
  • "Its easier to get drugs"
I also received a 'harsh' message from one mother who believed strongly drinking alcohol (and experimenting with illicit drugs) was simply a 'rite of passage' for young people and so-called research findings that said anything different was ridiculous. Here is just one cleaned-up section of the message (and I mean cleaned-up - this was a rant with a lot of swear words!):

"Drinking alcohol is just what teens do, they always have and they always will. It's a rite of passage. Most of them will also try drugs as well. Drugs are everywhere (more now then ever before) and the peer pressure to drink and take drugs was around when I was a teen and it's still there for my kids."

The one part of this message that riled me was the old chestnut - 'It's a rite of passage'. You see this used in so many statements around teen behaviour, particularly by parents who want to try and explain away potentially risky behaviour their child may be involved in by implying that it's just something that 'everyone' does at this time in their life and there's nothing they can do about it. Going to Schoolies' events is now often referred to as a 'rite of passage', as is attendance at post-formal events for senior school students. If you look at the term, it is defined as "a ceremony performed to facilitate or mark a person's change of status upon any of several highly important occasions, as at the onset of puberty or upon entry into marriage or into a clan." Now by that definition you can sort of see how a Schoolies' event can 'fit' - i.e., an event that marks the transition from high school to the big wide world, but drinking alcohol or experimenting with illicit drugs? Undoubtedly, drinking alcohol and/or experimenting with illicit drugs is a part of adolescence for some young people but can it really be regarded as a 'rite of passage'?

No-one should stick their head in the sand and pretend that drinking and drug use doesn't happen. When it comes to alcohol in particular – it would be true to say that most young people will experiment with it at some time during their teens. However, the same cannot be said for illegal drugs, particularly when we're talking about teenagers. Most school-based young people have never tried illegal drugs, they have no interest in these substances and they never will. Study after study after study confirms this, yet try and get this fact reported in the media and you hit a brick wall.

Interestingly, you often hit that very same brick wall when you speak to the teenagers themselves. Years ago, I had just finished a school presentation, with one of the final slides revealing the percentage of young people who have not tried illicit drugs. One student's response to the low number was particularly interesting ...

"Max was a Year 11 student and an outspoken critical thinker. Instead of whispering to the person next to him about his doubts regarding the figure he stood up and argued his case. "I find those figures very hard to believe," he said. "Everybody I know uses drugs. That slide just doesn't ring true – where did you find those people who you surveyed?"
After informing him and the rest of the group how the data was collected I decided to challenge him. "So everybody you know uses drugs?" I said. "You're in a room full of over 100 of your peers – are you saying that every one of these young people in this room uses drugs?" "No, of course not," he replied. "I don't mean people at school, I mean the people I know out of school. They all use drugs." I then wanted to know what drugs he was talking about and he informed me that cannabis was the drug of choice for 'everybody'.
"Give me a number," I asked him. "I want an actual number of the people that you know for a fact use cannabis. You have seen these people smoke the drug, not simply heard about it, or believe it to be true – you know for a fact. Work it out and give me the number."
It took Max quite a while to respond and for a while I thought my test was going to backfire, but he was an intelligent and thoughtful young man and was taking my challenge seriously. When he finally did give his answer it confirmed my belief that although he believed a considerable proportion (well, actually all of them) smoked cannabis, this was not the case.
"Five," he said!

I love this story! I included it in my 2009 book Teenagers, Alcohol and Drugs and used to tell it at every school I visited and it always got a great reception. Of course, there are many young people who know far more than 5 others who have drank alcohol or taken drugs, but I have yet to meet any student who can honestly say that 'everybody' they know does it! Unfortunately, there is a perception out there that, even amongst young people, that most people have used drugs and that all drink. When you take a few moments to challenge that perception you can get some really interesting results.

There are two words that I really dislike that we tend to overuse when talking about alcohol and drugs – 'all' and 'everybody'. If you just spend a couple of moments to think about it you know that statements like "everybody does it" and "all teenagers go through that stage" just don't make sense. Even if everyone you knew did 'do it' when you were younger (and I don’t believe that that is the case), that was your group and, like it or not, your friends may not have been the norm! 'Everybody' doesn't do it and not 'all' teenagers go through that stage – these generalizations need to be challenged and unfortunately we don't do that enough.

Let's not forget that not all young people are the same, this is particularly true when it comes to attitudes and values around alcohol and other drugs. Even when it comes to alcohol use, you quickly realize that young people are not one homogenous group. Teens can be broken down into three key categories, two of which we rarely acknowledge:
  • the first is the loudest and the most obvious, those who drink and often drink to excess. Evidence would suggest that this group is getting smaller but unfortunately are consuming at riskier levels than in the past and drinking at a younger age 
  • the next group comprises those who attempt to drink 'responsibly'. They don't drink regularly and when they do they usually consume a small amount. This does not mean there are no risks involved in their drinking behaviour, but we do need to acknowledge that these young people are trying to do 'the right thing' 
  • finally we have the abstainers. According to the data, this is a growing group but one we rarely speak about; in fact we often completely ignore them, making them feel even more alienated than many of them already feel within their peer group.
While putting together my book I asked young people I came in contact with to feel free to write to me with their thoughts on the topic of teens and alcohol and other drug use. I used many of these comments but recently found this one that got cut in the final edit ...

"As a 16-year-old, I am constantly frustrated by accusations and generalisations of teenagers. Apparently, we are all alcoholic junkies who spend our time vandalising, watching TV, and terrorising the "innocent, helpless, adult citizens" of our suburbs. I have long hair and a beard, which makes people's reactions to me even more obvious ... I don't steal, and I follow a lifestyle of being 'straight edge', which means I avoid alcohol and drugs ... Although this lifestyle is not for everyone, it is an example of what at least one teenager is like. I'm sick of the image of a "teenager" as being lazy and out of control. If all teenagers represented the mainstream portrayal of an adolescent, then I ask, who is getting the high UAIs? I mean, if we, the adults of the future, are all lazy ragamuffins, then the future looks pretty bleak. A large portion of the people who criticise the kids of today, were criticised for many of the same reasons when they were teenagers. I know this has been an angry, biased, and not particularly well written comment, but thanks for the opportunity to voice my thoughts."

That's a powerful statement and really highlights the whole 'rite of passage' myth. Let's never forget that all young people are different. We need to acknowledge that many young people will drink alcohol at some time during their adolescence and some may experiment with one or more illegal drugs. However, that does not mean that we should throw our arms up in the air and declare drinking and drug use as simply a 'rite of passage' that all teens will go through. That's a cop-out and, I believe, an excuse for lazy parenting. Drugs aren't everywhere, not everybody's doing them and not all teens get drunk - that's an undisputable fact that all parents should hold onto ...

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