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More to Ireland's youth than just a pack of thrill seekers

Parents and policy makers should not be frightened by the findings of The Irish Times/TNS mrbi youth poll.

Young people can sometimes seem like a species apart. They seem to be happiest when furthest away from adults, hanging out with friends in open spaces, in bars, in clubs, or secluded in their bedrooms. They are, in the words of one researcher, like an underground political movement - they are only really happy in the company of their fellow oppressed, well away from the adult regime.

They are suspicious of adult interest in what they get up to. "That's what the [Irish Times] study was really about," sniffed one young person. "Adults prying into our private lives. They're dying to find out what we're up to because they know we are having a good time and they're a bit jealous."

Certainly, the findings of last week's Irish Times/TNS mrbi youth poll suggest that this generation of young people are hell bent on having a good time - and the good times begin at an ever earlier age.

After the initial bout of adult alarm, the first question might be: are the figures in relation to young people's sexual activity, drinking and drug taking true or do they represent youthful bravado, wishful thinking, or a desperate attempt by young people not to answer (even in sealed envelopes) in a way that might make them look like sad cases? Well, self-report surveys are certainly open to such biases and can be unreliable. But the evidence from longitudinal studies of young people suggest that their responses tend to be internally consistent.

The second question might be: are Irish young people any worse than young people elsewhere? One country for which we have considerable data is the US. Looking first at The Irish Times survey, we see that 62 per cent of Irish young people have had sex - including a quarter of 15 to 17-year-olds. On average, 16 or 17 seems to be the age to lose your virginity. By the age of 24, boys have had an average of six sexual partners, while girls have had three. But, even within the 15 to 17 age group, those who have had sex have had an average of three partners.

In the US, a study based on a national sample of more than 10,000 high-school students showed that 40 per cent are sexually experienced by age 13 to 14 and that, by the age of 19, 70 per cent of girls and 80 per cent of boys have had intercourse.

A Canadian study showed that 32 per cent of 15 to 16-year-olds and 53 per cent of 17 to 18-year-olds have had sexual intercourse. These findings suggest that Irish young people are broadly following the same trend, although (for now) starting a little later. What we do not know from The Irish Times study is how often Irish young people have sex. The Canadian study reported that, of those who ever had sex, 50 per cent went on to have sex once or twice a week. But studies in the US suggest that adolescents engage in intercourse infrequently. Some appear to have had their first sexual experience as a rite of passage, an act of rebellion or to satisfy their curiosity. Once they have proven themselves, or discovered what they wanted to know, they tend to abstain until they become involved in a relationship.

What about drugs? Again, Irish young people are keeping pace with or even exceeding their US counterparts. Forty two per cent smoke cigarettes. The vast majority - whether they live in urban or rural Ireland - say that any illicit drug is easy to get hold of. While 73 per cent say that many of their age group are using drugs, only 44 per cent have tried drugs - mainly cannabis. Only 14 per cent are regular users and that seems to drop off around age 22.

In the US, by the end of high school, 42 per cent of young people have tried cannabis (compared to 39 per cent Irish), 7 per cent have used cocaine (compared to 9 per cent Irish) and 16 per cent have used some other illegal drug (compared to 22 per cent in the Republic who have tried either ecstasy or speed).

But it is in drinking alcohol that young Irish people seem to be carrying cultural baggage - and, unfortunately, of a negative kind.

Eighty per cent drink alcohol, including 60 per cent of 15 to 17-year-olds. On average, they start at age 15 and on a "good night out" have eight drinks. The girls keep pace with the boys, only tailing off at the eight drinks limit. A further 20 per cent of boys claim to consume 10 drinks. No wonder 71 per cent say that money is very important to them - a much higher proportion thain the US.

While 80 per cent of older adolescents in the US have tried alcohol, 91 per cent of Irish 20 year olds drink. Thirty per cent of American older adolescents are regular drinkers (defined as drinking on more than two occasions in the previous 30 days). Although The Irish Times study did not ask that same question, evidence in the survey generally suggests that a substantially higher percentage of Irish young people would be regular drinkers according to that definition.

Of American older adolescents, 31 per cent engage in binge drinking (five or more drinks in a row at least once in a two-week period). Among Irish young people, 49 per cent drink between five and eight drinks on "a good night out".

While this is real cause for concern, it would be a pity if the findings of the survey were to make parents and policy makers take fright. At some level, young people are aware of danger, threat and risk. More interestingly, they are signalling the need for limits to be set.

The vast majority want the minimum legal drinking age to be 18, and nearly a fifth want it to be raised to 21. More than half agree with the Government's proposed ban on smoking in pubs and restaurants. And they do not want cannabis to be legalised. Seventy seven per cent are concerned about crime and street violence, and their anxiety increases with age. The majority want stiffer criminal sentences. More than half know somebody in their age group who has committed or attempted suicide.

For this generation, growing up is just as complex and full of risks as it ever was. The biggest fear of young people is that they will be left stuck at home, undesirable, uncool, rejected. They need an irrational surge of psychological energy to go out into the adult world and claim their place.

Little wonder that, by way of compensation, they often seem to think of themselves as invincible, immune to the laws of life and death.

Parents have to try to inject their own experience of the world into this fantasy, of course, but in a way that will not crush that energy, that will not make their teenage children too frightened to risk emotional or physical intimacy.

Each young person has to fashion a sense of uniqueness. Who am I? How am I the same or different to those around me? What is expected of me? In a rapidly changing Ireland, young people cannot rely on traditional roles or widely accepted rules of behaviour to define themselves. They are growing up in a world where, as the sociologist David Elkind observed nearly 20 years ago, the visible markers of every age group - not just youth or adulthood - are blurring. Increasingly, young people have to rely on the psychological quality of their experiences as markers of maturity or adulthood - on the quality of their decisions, their relationships, their commitment to life tasks. And there is much less forgiveness for failure.

Asked in one study to describe occasions when they had most enjoyed themselves, young people mentioned time spent with friends "doing rowdy, loud, crazy, wild things and having a fantastic time". There is a particular adolescent thrill in letting go, in being swept away by the group mood, a kind of uncontrollable glee, as if somebody presses "Go" and there is no "Stop" button. But the exuberance and risk-taking of adolescents are really just the outer forms of more heroic qualities that are needed to grow up: bravery and courage.

And Irish young people's risk taking, exuberance and need for autonomy is counterbalanced by a desire, right into their 20s, for closeness with their parents.

Eighty two per cent still live at home. Touchingly, when asked to nominate the three people they most admire, 35 per cent chose their parents and 15 per cent chose another family member. A further 26 per cent had to go no further than their friends and neighbours to find somebody they admired. All of the evidence shows that parents remain crucial in young people's lives, as long as they stay emotionally close. This closeness and engagement is particularly important for vulnerable young people. Unfortunately, direct interaction between parent and adolescents at home can often be limited.

If US research is an indication, adolescents spend only 19 per cent of their waking time with their family and only 5 per cent alone with parents (they spend about half their time with friends and classmates). This translates into two hours per week interacting exclusively with mothers and half an hour per week (or five minutes per day) with fathers.

So, the window of opportunity for talking, listening and influencing may be very narrow. On top of that, young people are less likely to talk to their parents once they actually embark on risky activities - having sex, drinking or trying drugs - but are more open to discussion just before that, when their attitudes are forming.

Young people need to be listened to. They need opportunities to make decisions and to get feedback without criticism. They need to be able to argue, disagree and be opinionated (well, occasionally). They need to become more and more themselves, and yet stay close and connected to those who have loved them longest.

Perhaps the psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner summed it up best when he said that what young people most need is someone who finds them "somehow special, especially wonderful and especially precious".

Originally published in The Irish Times. 

Posted: 22 September 2003