Debate article: Alcohol consumption among young people in the Nordic countries is falling – the differences need to be examined
7 Mar 2019
In all Nordic countries, minors are drinking less than before. Key reasons for this may be parents keeping a closer eye on their children and adopting a more restrictive attitude towards both their own alcohol consumption and that of their children. Difficulties in obtaining alcohol may also be an explanation. A reduction in alcohol consumption, for whatever reason, significantly prevents harm in many areas.
Alcohol consumption among young Nordic people has decreased in the last ten to fifteen years. We are now seeing a positive downward trend, in contrast to the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, when alcohol consumption among young people increased. In all the Nordic countries, the proportion of 15-year-olds who have never tasted alcohol has increased. Among the minors who drink, the number of times they drink is lower than in the past. This means that young people are drinking alcohol less often, and in smaller quantities, compared with 10–15 years ago. Young people today are also older than previous generations when they drink alcohol – and when they get drunk – for the first time.
These trends and their possible explanations are the subject of the Nordic Welfare Centre’s new report, What’s new about adolescent drinking in the Nordic countries?
Although alcohol consumption among young people has decreased in all the Nordic countries, there are also some differences. Young people in Iceland drink the least, while those in Denmark drink the most. The decline in drinking has been the most pronounced in Iceland. Denmark, on the other hand, is the Nordic country where alcohol consumption among young people is still above the European average.
In the 2015 European School Survey Project on Alcohol and Other Drugs (ESPAD), nine per cent of Icelandic young people responded that they had consumed alcohol in the previous month. In Denmark, the corresponding figure was approximately 70 per cent, and drinking to get drunk is still a fairly common part of youth culture.
The research has not managed to come up with a clear answer as to why young people are drinking less than before. There have been many changes in the lives of young people during the time period in which drinking has decreased, but it is unclear which of these changes has been the most crucial in terms of young people drinking less.
One possible reason, which is highlighted in the report, is that parents know more about where their children spend their leisure time and they also have better control over their children and closer contact with them through mobile phones. Parents in the Nordic countries also seem to have a more restrictive attitude towards underage drinking than previous generations. Research shows that today there is greater communication than before between parents and children. The research refers to this as the disappearing generation gap. Studies also indicate that minors are more likely than ever to find it difficult to obtain alcohol. Stricter age checks in shops are one explanation mentioned.
Some researchers claim that youth culture is simply more anti-alcohol than it used to be. Here too there seem to be differences, however. In Denmark, drinking alcohol is still perceived more positively and as a more obvious part of youth culture than in other parts of the Nordic region. Even in Denmark, though, attitudes are changing.
There is insufficient support in current research for the assumption that young people are drinking less because they spend more time in front of the computer or on social media. The theory that cannabis has replaced alcohol as a source of intoxication does not seem to be accurate either. Cannabis tends to be used rather as a complement to alcohol; the majority of cannabis users also consume alcohol.
In many ways, today’s young people are well behaved and sensible. For example, they value school and they drink and smoke less than previous generations. At the same time, young people are experiencing the symptoms of stress, anxiety and insomnia, among other things, to a greater extent. The prevalence of mental illness among young people seems to be increasing in several Nordic countries. The fact that this is occurring at the same time as alcohol use among this group is decreasing has baffled researchers.
Not all young people who drink large quantities of alcohol in adolescence continue to do so in adulthood and not all adults who drink too much have done so in their youth. Preventive measures must therefore be targeted at entire populations of young people and not just those who drink a lot.
It is also important to point out that some groups have not followed this trend: alcohol consumption has increased in some socioeconomically vulnerable groups. More research is needed on this trend and on the potential polarisation of drinking. Another finding is that young people in minority cultures in the Nordic countries drink less than those in the majority society. Researchers speculate whether the habits of these young people may be influencing those of young Nordic people.
Although a positive decline in alcohol consumption among young people can be observed in all the Nordic countries, there are some interesting differences that are worthy of attention. Despite the similarities of the Nordic countries, there are both structural and legal differences and varying alcohol policies. Comparing the different outcomes of our Nordic countries may provide guidance for change.
Dagfinn Høybråten, Secretary General of the Nordic Council of Ministers
Eva Franzén, Director of the Nordic Welfare Centre