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.

* * * * * *

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.

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