- 03 Jul 12
Young people in Ireland have been stereotyped for too long. Now is the time to reclaim the narrative...
Well, here we are at the high point of our daylight season – one hesitates to call it summer – and another of the year’s markers rolls past. Midsummer’s day marks the end of the examination season. And that, of course, is followed by a major exodus of young people, heading off to this year’s favoured destinations. Follow their adventures on Facebook and YouTube. Ehhh, follow their misadventures too: there will be many and they will be seen.
No doubt there will be news reports in the tabloids and photos of drinking, drug-taking and random shagging. It’s almost inevitable that a quasi-reality show will follow, titled “boozed up Irish students abroad” or something similar.
The thing is, that’s the accepted national narrative when it comes to young people. It’s all about the misbehaviour and misdemeanours. The glass is always half empty.
Of course there are issues of concern. For example, recent research by the mental health support group Headstrong revealed worrying trends in alcohol abuse by students. But the national discourse on young people is unduly negative and pessimistic.
As an example, take the coverage of the European School Project on Alcohol and Other Drugs (ESPAD). This is based on self-reporting by 15-16 year olds. (That should give pause for thought for a start. Many researchers regard self-reporting as an unreliable source of information. It’s indicative rather than definitive. But I digress…)
So, what did ESPAD reveal?
Apparently, Irish teenagers drink less often than teenagers in other European countries. They are 7% below the European average. Yes, I said below the average, not 7% below the max as no doubt you might have expected…
Also, the number trying illicit drugs has halved since 1995, from 37% to 19%. Counterintuitive it may be, but that’s what it says. They smoke less cigarettes as well, apparently – 23% of girls and 19% of boys as compared with the European average of 28% across both sexes.
That’s all good news – yet the media could find no good news there. Almost universally they homed in on the fact that Irish teenagers consume more than the European average when they drink (which, I emphasise, is less often). In the Irish Times Brian O’Connell argued that binge-drinking has taken hold for Irish teens.
So, instead of everybody being pleased that Irish teenagers drink less frequently, take less drugs and smoke less than their European counterparts, they affected concern about the binge drinking.
This is emblematic of a more general consensus in Ireland – which is that young people are a problem rather than a resource. Trouble and risk are always highlighted while strengths and contributions are downplayed.
Of course, there are no headlines in good news. This is what President Higgins was referring to at the launch of his youth initiative ‘Being Young and Irish’.
“...Young people are all too often viewed as a problem. Their mental health, sexual health, alcohol and drugs and unemployment issues are all that is discussed about being young and Irish. The media can at times stereotype problem ‘youths’ and young people grow into a society where they feel and are given the impression that they are unwelcome and unloved. In response to such stereotypes and insignificant attention and response, many are left feeling frustrated, annoyed, angry, disillusioned, and sadly, apathetic.”
There is an ongoing pressure for a range of policy actions regarding the abuse of alcohol and drugs, hence the dominant narrow and problematic analysis. There is a constant high level static about how bad we are, so much so that most people now believe the bad news even though it is at most a partial truth.
To support the hostile prognosis, the media seek out practitioners from alcohol treatment services for their opinions. Naturally, since their experience derives from treating the minority who have problems not the majority with no problems, they go large on the bad stuff every time. What else would you expect?
But are they right? Hardly. Ask anyone who works with troubled youth and those who are honest will tell you that they have no real idea what normal young people are like…
The barrage has the opposite effect to what is intended. Some years ago I met a youth worker on her way home from a week-long exchange visit in Ireland between her Irish group of young people and a Swedish group. For most of the week they had all been doing fine and there was little pressure regarding drink. Then, late on the Wednesday, one of the Swedish youths arrived in to the hostel with a tabloid newspaper carrying a sensationalistic report on EU patterns of alcohol consumption.
“It says here that you’re Europe’s top drinkers,” he said. “Well, where can we get some alcohol to prove it?” The rest of the week was madness as the Irish teenagers sank to the challenge.
“That article was a disaster,” the youth worker said. “It was more powerful than all the advertising and promotions and cheap offers put together.” Instead of highlighting a problem it precipitated one.
It’s a strange thing to see, senior medical and media personalities constantly revivifying the old imperialist notion of the drunken Paddy, convincing an entire population of the truth of a pessimistic and condescending stereotype. But that’s what has happened. And now, even though it’s inaccurate, it’s accepted everywhere.
Within that morbid stereotype is another, this time regarding young people. Enough is enough. It’s time to cut this off between wind and water. Responding to the President’s invitation to make submissions and to apply to attend the workshops his office is organising around the country will be a start. It’s time to reclaim the narrative for ourselves. (http://www.president.ie/being-young-irish/)