Youth in Iceland: a blog from Reykjavik, March, 2020 by Pat and Hannah
As part of the Youth in Iceland Model project (see the main project page), a small group of us had the fantastic opportunity to visit Reykjavik for the Planet Youth Conference in March 2020, and to hear first-hand how the ‘Icelandic Model’ had been developed as a method for delaying young people’s engagement with substance use. Before the conference we had two full days of exploring, getting to know the city and speaking to people about the Model. Over the two days we spoke to a number of people and although, interestingly, none of them were aware of Planet Youth by name, they talked about a significant change in the age at which young people were starting to drink alcohol and use other substances.
We first spoke to a man, originally from Scotland, who had lived in Iceland for 20 years. We explained our project to him and asked him about whether he noticed any changes in young people’s behaviour since arriving here. He said that Icelanders ‘just want happy children’ and described a culture where substance use was talked about openly. He stressed the cultural differences between Scotland and Iceland and spoke about how Icelanders are far more open about substance use than back home. We then spoke to his colleague, who was 23, and she spoke about her experience in Iceland and described how her generation generally don’t drink alcohol below the ages of 16/17. We also spoke to an employee in the City Hall who described a change in drinking patterns. He explained that as a teenager he would spend much of his time outdoors with friends and they would often drink moonshine (homemade alcohol). In comparison, his kids aged 23 and 15 have had a very different experience and did not drink in their early teenage years. He also noted that previously all pubs and clubs in Reykjavik closed at 3am, which meant that the streets were busy, and this often led to fights. He said that most bars and clubs now close at various times between 3-6am, which staggers the number of people out in the streets and has had a positive impact on high levels of public drunkenness.
In the evening we visited a cafe/bar in the centre of Reykjavik and spoke with two 18-year-olds who were playing cards and drinking soft drinks. We explained why we were there, and they agreed to talk to us. We said we were surprised that they were not drinking alcohol and they replied “it’s Monday – why would you? You wouldn’t be able to function on a school day”. While they hadn’t heard of the Planet Youth programme by name, they knew of the surveys, curfews, and the stipends for extracurricular activities. They reflected on their experiences growing up, with one noting that his family had a fridge magnet with the times at which he was expected to be home at night. These differed during the summer and winter, and for different age groups. The other talked about trying different sports throughout his childhood and that this was possible due to the pre-paid leisure card. The young men did describe a culture of not drinking in Iceland until around 17 years but said they do now get drunk regularly at the weekend. Although cannabis described as more common, harder drug use seemed to be something they were both scared of. One of them said his father worked in mental health services and had warned him about the dangers of using drugs. They both talked about people they knew who had been ostracised by their families because of hard drug use, and that there was a sense that if you used these substances, you would have to deal with the more severe consequences of no family support. They also talked about a school friend who had been very fit and into sports but had started injecting drugs and had died one month later.
On Thursday morning we met with a Psychology school teacher who had a role in prevention and student wellbeing at the school. She talked about her experiences of substance use when she was younger and when alcohol use was normal from a young age. She said that the situation now is very different, with fewer young people drinking before the age of 16 and drinking less when they do drink. Parents, she said, know each other, and promote shared rules for young people so that all young people are given the same information, for example in terms of alcohol use, attending parties, or curfews. It was interesting to hear more about the approach of schools and the focus they have on increasing young people’s wellbeing, self-esteem, and confidence.
Through the various conversations that we had with different people, it is clear that young people are central to the Icelandic Model and schools, parents, and young people all working together is vital and what makes the model successful. It is also evident that the YiIM is not a ‘quick fix’ and there is long term commitment needed by everyone involved in order to see change. By the time we were heading to the Planet Youth conference, we were excited to hear how the Icelandic Model had been implemented in other countries around the world and to hear how the model could be applied/adapted to a particular local context and city as this would enable us to take back recommendations to Scotland.
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