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Are our kids really that bad?

Here is an edited version of an Opinion Piece I wrote for ABC Online way back in January 2008.
If you believe the media you would quite
honestly believe that we now have the ‘worst group of young people in the
history of young people’. Current affairs programs and radio shock jocks love
to tell tales of young people out of control, that we have higher rates of drug
use than ever before and that drinking rates are through the roof.


I have been in an extremely privileged
position over the past decade or so. Almost every week over that time I have
been asked to speak to school communities right across the country about
alcohol and other drug issues. I get to speak to a range of people about this
subject and I continue to feel extremely positive about young Australians. So
many of them are doing wonderful things, have made great choices and have
amazing futures in front of them. When do we ever talk about them and celebrate
the good things about our children?
Now that’s not to say that we don’t have a
problem. There is drug use occurring and unfortunately those who do experiment
tend to do it at a younger age, putting them at much greater risk. However, as
far as illegal drugs are concerned we are talking about a small group and
constantly highlighting the minority sends very confusing messages to that much
larger group who have not used. They often feel like aliens and are often
convinced that drug use is the norm, even though that is not their personal
experience. Shouldn’t we concentrate on the majority who don’t ‘do the wrong
thing’ and send a positive and empowering message?
This is particularly true when it comes to
alcohol. This is the drug that we should be most concerned about when it comes
to our children, but we have been so conditioned to worry about illicit drugs
that alcohol use is often regarded as almost a rite of passage. It has become
so normalised in our society that it really should come as no surprise that some
of our young people are drinking at high levels and experiencing great
Adolescent drinking should really come as
no real surprise – simply examine the role models that our children have to
follow. What do they see in their own home? How do their parents socialize?
What is the one constant at almost every celebration in our society – whether
it be a birth, a death, a victory or a loss? Their parents come home after a
hard day at the office and what is the first thing they do? They have a drink
to relax. They use a drug to get through the evening, to relax and wind down
after a stressful day.
Even so, when you examine the statistics
around alcohol use, you quickly realize that young people are not just one
large homogenous group. They can be broken down to three key groups, two of
which we rarely acknowledge. The first is the loudest and the most obvious,
those young people who drink to excess. There is much debate whether this group
is growing or not – I don’t believe it is, although it is quite clear that they
are drinking at much riskier levels and getting younger.
The next group are the ones that drink
responsibly. They don’t drink regularly and when they do drink they consume a
small amount. This does not mean that there are still not risks involved for
these young people but we do need to acknowledge that they are trying to do
‘the right thing’.
Finally we have the abstainers. An
interesting fact that is rarely talked about is that between 20-25% of 16-17
school-based year olds have never drunk alcohol. We never speak about these
young people and their decision; in fact we completely ignore them, making them
feel even more alienated that they feel already within their peer group. I
can’t begin to tell you how many students come up and speak to me after a
presentation thanking me for acknowledging them during my talk. Constantly focusing
on the at-risk drinkers is doing incredible damage to these young people who
have made the decision not to drink.
What I find particularly illuminating are
the types of questions that young people are generally interested in. They
pretty well follow one theme – how can I keep myself and/or my friends safer? We
do have a very caring group of young people in our society. The things they are
interested include the following:
  •  How do I look after a drunk friend?
  • One of my friends drinks far too much. I’m
    worried about her, what can I do?
  • Are there any ways to prevent a hangover?
At a time when our younger generation is
getting a ‘bad rap’ from the media it is important that we maintain some
perspective. In actual fact we have a group of young people who are genuinely
interested in collecting information on keeping themselves and their friends as
safe as possible. Unfortunately we are so obsessed about providing them with
information that we think they should have that we are neglecting to give them
the information they really want and need.
Our kids are great, not problem free, but
great nevertheless. It’s time we acknowledged all of the wonderful things they
do and spoke about the majority of young people and the positive life decisions
they make. Alcohol is the major drug problem with this group and all parents
need to ensure that are well-informed about the risks associated with adolescents
and drinking. It is also vital that all parents attempt to arm their children
with information and skills to look after themselves and their friends during
the difficult period known as adolescence.

Looking for information or support services on alcohol or drugs?

If you or a friend or family member needs assistance in this area, Alcohol and Drug Information Services (ADIS) are available in every state and territory. Each of these are each staffed by trained professionals who can help with your query and provide confidential advice or refer you to an appropriate service in your area.

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