Alcohol and our youth – why we should be celebrating, not panicking

Ben Thurman, Policy and Research Officer, Mentor ScotlandNeknominate 1

The recent media storm surrounding the facebook craze, NekNominate, has seen the familiar young-people-and-alcohol debate return to the headlines. Except that it’s rarely much of a debate.

Broadsheets and tabloids, left-leaning and right have united in their condemnation of the game, invoking crisis talk about young people’s relationship with alcohol. One spokesperson lambasted this “lethal game” that “normalise[s] binge-drinking” among young people.

But generalisations about young people and alcohol that invite moral panic about the state of our youth are not constructive. That’s not to say we shouldn’t be concerned: NekNominate has already contributed to the deaths of several young people in the UK; and, more generally, various comparative studies show that underage drinking is more prevalent on our shores than in any other EU nation.

However, at the same time there is cause for optimism. Interspersed with reports on the perils of binge-drinking are stories of “young non-drinkers”, speculation that “dry bars” may be the next big thing, and the very real evidence (pdf) that teenage drinking has dropped significantly in the last ten years.

Binge-drinking is not as normalised as some might have us believe – increasingly less normalised, in fact. There are certainly challenges; but dwelling too long on the deficiencies of youth is not the answer – we are in danger of stifling the positive influence of many young people in Britain today.

The media panic around youth and alcohol consistently questions the role of parenting, the influence of schools and criticises a lack of public spending. But there is rarely a discussion of what young people themselves can and are doing to change attitudes towards alcohol.

There are many positive examples of young people being proactive about alcohol use. At Mentor, we believe that young people can affect change – that they are perhaps the best people to do so. And we’ve seen the evidence first-hand.

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Since moving to Scotland in 2008, Mentor has championed peer-led initiatives to enhance protective factors among young people and reduce alcohol misuse. In our Peer Education Alcohol Project, young people displayed their ability to develop resources and training on alcohol to deliver to peers and practitioners, and ultimately to increase knowledge and reduce harm for young people with alcohol problems.

Building on this methodology, we are currently running a peer education programme in Polmont Young Offenders Institution that encourages young people to develop their own ideas and deliver sessions to targeted groups in the wider population. With the success of these initiatives, we hope to spread this methodology further and encourage young people to become proactive leaders in their own communities.

Finally, we organised the first ever STAND (Young Scots Tackling Alcohol & Drugs) Awards last year, through which we received nominations for outstanding youth-led projects that are tackling alcohol and drugs head-on in their schools and communities. The two winners, DRC Generation and The Big ShoutER, demonstrated exceptional levels of passion and commitment to changing young people’s attitudes towards alcohol and drugs within their schools and communities.

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There’s a huge amount of positive energy among young people; but by generalising and demonising youth in the media, we are not encouraging them to thrive. Mentor feels passionately about the potential for young people to be agents of change, and we’re trying to channel that energy. Rather than dwelling too long on the negatives, surely we should all be cultivating their potential and celebrating their success?

Nominations for STAND 2014 are now open: if you feel as strongly about the potential of young people as we do, here’s an opportunity to let Scotland know about their outstanding achievements.


Broadcasting their message with Bolt FM

Neil Young is Youth Team Leader at St. Paul’s Youth Forum based in the Blackhill area of Glasgow.

Yesterday, young people across the world took part in World Radio Day, an event organised by UNESCO to help give people a voice. Our youth radio station, Bolt FM, was Bolt FM 1 in full swing with extra broadcasts organised with pupils from Smithycroft Secondary and local community groups. As radio continues to evolve in the digital age, it remains a medium that reaches the widest audience worldwide and continues to be a strong force, giving young people a chance to be heard.

Bolt FM was set up in 2001 to tackle gang fighting, by bringing the two communities of Blackhill and Royston together under one project, but at separate times. Now, almost 13 years on, gang fighting has been eliminated in these communities for over 6 years and now we are helping young people to express themselves, by looking at the subjects that matter to them. From sectarianism and computer gaming, to employment and training, young people have been able to ascertain and discuss the views of other young people.

Bolt FM 2At the core of Bolt FM’s work, is that it is youth led. No adult has ever told a young person what to broadcast and with our board membership’s average age under 21, we like to think of ourselves as youth led. As the draft youth strategy is discussed around the country, it is no coincidence that putting young people at the heart of the policy is the first item on the list. If we don’t allow young people to have a full role in local and national decision making, designing, co-producing and delivering services, then we run the risk of tokenism and losing some vital concepts and energy.

In Fletchers Ladder of Youth Voice, we see the steps required to move from tokenism to partnership to equity. How many of us as youth providers are able to be at the top of the ladder? For us here at Bolt, we are continually striving to achieve equity, although obviously there are some constraints, with the paternalistic rules of Ofcom, whose rules dictate what can or cannot be said in terms of swearing and balanced political views. With the law stating that trustees of charities cannot be under 16, how can we challenge the law so that young people have full equity, instead of requiring adult ambassadors to deal with the legal aspects of charity law? On the other hand, how far should we push the law? For example, should young people be involved in managing and firing staff? Can we enable them to acquire the tools to be fully equitable?

As young people all over the world are engaging with World Radio Day and making their first forays into broadcasting, we should be there as workers to support but not dictate, to empower and challenge leaders and policy makers to take youth participation further, and who knows – next year we may see large commercial stations highlighting the skills of our young people, turning the mics over to North East Glasgow’s finest broadcasters.


What can volunteering really achieve?

James Davies, Strathclyde University is working on a PhD looking at young people’s experiences of volunteering. James Davies

Young people and volunteering. These are words we encounter daily and which are often presented to us without an explanation of what they are referring to. For example, when we talk about young people who exactly do we mean? There are important differences along gender, ethnic and class lines which shape behaviour and opportunities. Similarly, when we say volunteering are we referring to one-off informal acts, such as babysitting, or regular and planned formal activities, like volunteering at a community centre? Volunteering is frequently considered a win-win activity benefiting individuals and communities alike, but do existing voluntary opportunities favour certain sections of the population leading to the exclusion of others?

One of the presumed benefits of voluntary action is that it can lead to employment. Skills Development Scotland have a webpage dedicated to showing how volunteering can help individuals search for jobs. Yet the link between volunteering and employment may not be so straightforward. Whilst it may enhance a person’s employability (i.e. the skills needed to succeed in the workplace), it does not necessarily lead to actual employment. Indeed, in cases where employment has been gained after volunteering, it is not always easy to separate volunteering from other influencing factors.

Since the financial crash in 2008 the number of unemployed 16 to 24 year olds in Scotland has been steadily increasing. Although the number appears to have dropped slightly in the past year, the figure currently stands at 20%. Importantly, if we look within this we see differences along gender lines, with 17% of young women claiming Jobseekers Allowance compared to 23% of young men; the figures rise for those with disabilities. Furthermore, there are differences according to the length of time spent on Jobseekers Allowance; the number of claimants on it for six to twelve months fell by 32% during the past year, whereas the number on it for two or more years rose by 54%.

With high numbers of young people out of work and with variations according to social characteristics, we need to think carefully about trying to use volunteering as a cure-all to problems such as unemployment. There are broader social factors that, depending on a person’s position within the social system, can either further or hamper their ability to ‘get-ahead’ in life.

However, while volunteering may not always lead to employment, there are other important social benefits it can bring which should not be dismissed. Individuals can gain experiences, learn skills and boost their confidence. Communities can benefit from the actions of volunteers in areas the public and private sectors fail to reach, the socially excluded can be engaged with and local organisations can ease demand on their services.

We need a wider and more detailed understanding of what volunteering means and what it can achieve; how does it relate to employment, which sections of the population benefit from it, what are the localised differences and why do they exist? Questions that are being addressed within the Scotland’s Best program.

While still scoping the exact focus of the research, my PhD, with the University of Strathclyde and Volunteer Scotland, will explore young people’s perceptions of volunteering; their experiences of it (or lack thereof), whether they think it is a beneficial activity to pursue and what they think it can achieve.

I welcome communication and engagement from organisations with an interest in young people and volunteering as well as contributions from young people themselves.



James Davies

First year PhD candidate at the University of Strathclyde

Working with Volunteer Scotland

Email: james.davies [at] Twitter: @james925