Iceland Has the Highest Rate of Sober Teens in Europe


By Staff Writer

Original Source:

When it comes to clean living among young people in Europe, Iceland has the highest rates of sobriety and the lowest rates of cigarette and drug use. In a large scale national effort spanning almost 20 years, Iceland has dramatically changed the landscape of youth substance use.

In 2016, the Island state carried out its most recent annual questionnaire in schools across the country and the results showed that just 5% of young people aged 15-16 had been drunk in the previous month (down from 42% in 1998), only 7% of students had ever used cannabis (down from 17% in 1998) and daily smokers were just 3% (down from 23% in 1998).

The project originated with American Psychology Professor, Harvey Milkman, who now teaches at Reykjavik University. His initial research into drug abuse was carried out in the 1970s at Metropolitan State College of Denver. His focus was on behavioural addiction and he theorised that the alteration to brain chemistry, or ‘rush’, experienced by substance abusers could be replaced by alternative sources, particularly by activities that produced natural highs.

In 1992, Milkman’s theories formed the basis of a social project called Project Self-Discovery. The program was funded by the US Government to the tune of $1.2m and its aim was to provide classes in sport, music, art, dance and various other activities for young people aged 14 and upwards who had a history of drugs and criminal activity. Milkman believed that the activities offered would create the same chemical reaction that participants had received from substances, or the rush received from committing a crime, but the reaction would be achieved through positive activities and in an environment that allowed them to learn and build on essential life skills.

Around the same time, Harvey Milkman visited Iceland frequently to give talks about his research and to consult at an adolescent residential drug treatment centre. His research captured the attention of Inga Dóra Sigfúsdóttir who went a step further and believed that the provision of extra-curricular activities could also serve as a preventative measure and stop young people from ever starting to use alcohol, cigarettes or drugs.

In 1992 and again in 1995 and 1997, questionnaires were filled in by every young person in every school in the country to establish levels of alcohol and cigarette use, involvement in extracurricular activities, the nature of family relationships and time spent with parents.

The results allowed researchers to conclude not only that there was a staggeringly high rate of alcohol, cigarette and drug misuse, but also identified the schools and areas that faced the biggest problems. Where usage rates were lowest, a high volume of students were involved in extra-curricular activities, spent large amounts of time with parents, did not go outside late at night and were in a nurturing school environment.

These results were to form the basis of Youth Iceland, a national program established to address and resolve the country’s substance abuse issues. New legislation was passed to ensure changes were brought about. Schools and parents were encouraged to work together to contribute to the plan. Every school was required to establish a parents group to engage families and to support them in focusing on quantity over quality when it came to spending time with their children. Parents were supplied with agreements to sign which laid down boundaries and asserted authority in the home.

Further laws were introduced preventing anyone under 18 from buying cigarettes and anyone under 20 from buying alcohol. Children aged 13-16 were given a curfew of 10pm in winter and 12am in summer.

The state also made additional funding available for extra-curricular activities and ensured these activities were accessible to all.

Since its introduction, Youth Iceland has shown incredible results with alcohol, drug and cigarette use slashed, but also with 15-16 year olds reporting a 23% increase of time spent with parents mid-week and an 18% increase in the number of teenagers committed to organized sports 4 times a week.

Iceland’s model has undoubtedly seen results. Stemming from it is an initiative called Youth in Europe which is hoped to share some of this success elsewhere across Europe and eventually further. To date, towns and cities have adopted the model to identify issues pertinent to youths in their jurisdiction, but it has not yet been adopted at national level anywhere in Europe or beyond.

In Lithuania, the city of Kaunas has seen a 25% drop in 15-16 year olds getting drunk in the last 30 days and more than a 30% drop in daily smoking figures after the model was embraced by the city and the questionnaire carried out 5 times. Subsequently, the city introduced free parenting sessions, additional funding for public services working with mental health and stress management, free sports activities and free transport to enable low-income families to avail of the services. Crime rates among children in Kaunas dropped 33% between 2014-2015 and in Bucharest, where the model has also been introduced, teen suicide rates are dropping at the same rate as alcohol and drug use.

While the Icelandic model has proven successful, can it be adapted to any society? In the United Kingdom, a trial of the model in Brighton failed to be successful as parents were not willing to engage with the program.

Milkman’s Project Self Discovery, despite winning numerous awards and being hailed as a success, was not replicated anywhere else in the US. With population, homelessness, gangs, the structure of public funding and many other factors at play, what hope is there for the Youth Iceland model to translate into US culture?

The Icelandic relationship between State and Citizen is at the heart of the Island’s success. It remains to be seen if any other country is brave enough to meet the challenge.