The number of teenagers in the UK using illegal drugs has halved since 2001.
Illustration by Dan Evans
This post originally appeared on VICE UK.
Growing up in southwest London in the 1980s, my alcohol and drug use was not abnormal. I must have started drinking at 14, because it was at that age I got a criminal record for causing a road accident after too many lagers. At secondary school, we sniffed Tippex from our sweater sleeves, smoked Embassy and Rothmans at lunch, and had the odd aerosol whiff at the local rec. At college, it was stoned chess marathons, LSD, and mushrooms among the trees and some heavy drinking at punk gigs.
Is this weird behavior for today's teenagers? Is "Generation Z," the 12- to 22-year-olds of 2017, getting more or less high than kids in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s? Is Britain headed for another generation of intoxicated debauchery, or one of puritanical sanctuary?
Go solely off what the media tells you, and it's hard to know what to think. There's been a steady drip of articles stating that teenagers are over alcohol—that being a teen today is the same as joining a sanctimonious monk-cult, obsessed with organic food and extreme yoga. Yet, turn the page, and teenage ecstasy deaths are spiraling, laughing gas and Spice are all over the schoolyard, and British girls are the drunkest people in the world.
On the surface, all the conditions are there for a rise in drug use. Illegal drugs are more widely available, online and on the street, than ever before. They are more socially acceptable, and the punishments for using them are less severe. But it's just not happening. All the evidence shows that smoking, drinking, and drug use have taken a long-term nosedive. In the mid 1980s, 55 percent of 11- to 15-year-olds had smoked a cigarette, and 62 percent had drunk alcohol. Today, 18 percent have smoked a cigarette, and 38 percent have drunk alcohol. The proportion of 11- to 15-year-olds who have ever used an illegal drug has halved since 2001, from 29 percent to 15 percent.
It's a similar story among those in their late teens and early 20s. In the history books of the future, 1998 will likely be known as the peak point of illegal drug use among young people in Britain. Back then, when everyone was rich and listening to Britpop, 31.8 percent of 16- to 24-year-olds had taken an illegal drug. Yet, by 2016, mainly down to a gradual drop in cannabis use, that figure had fallen to 18 percent. Despite experiencing a revival since 2012, current cocaine and MDMA use is down from peaks in 2008 and 2001, respectively. And as with the general population, drugs such as amphetamines, hallucinogens, and poppers are all now minority sports among teenagers.
So what's going on here? Why are young people, historically key consumers in the drug trade, foregoing drugs and alcohol?
In search of an answer, I spoke to Chloe Combi. A writer and former secondary school teacher, she interviewed 2,000 teenagers for her 2015 book Generation Z. She spoke to them about sex, relationships, family, school, crime, and health, and how these issues intertwined with drugs. Combi gained a unique insight into what makes the Snapchat generation tick.
First up, she wants to dispel the myth of all young people being sober and boring. "I don't think suddenly we've gone from teenagers being massive party animals to everyone sitting around at home drinking chamomile tea. Drink and drugs are still a prevalent part of teenage life," she says. "For example, there are a lot of upper class kids really into cocaine now. Private schools have a big problem with it. Equally, smoking weed is still appealing to a wide group of kids. It's affordable, accessible, it's integral to a lot of gaming and estate culture."
Even so, Combi's interviews give some pointers as to why drink and drugs are increasingly being rejected. Two decades of hardcore anti-drugs, anti-smoking, and anti-alcohol education has done its job, she says. "The biggest influence on kids are other kids," she says. "It's not uncool to say, 'I don't take drugs or drink.' It's perfectly acceptable now."
She noticed a contrast to her own school days in the 1990s. "If you were a 15-year-old lad in the 90s, you worshipped Liam Gallagher. Now, you worship Ed Sheeran. I remember the big coke thing with Britpop when I was at school, and I don't think there's that Loaded-style glamour attached to drugs anymore."
In Combi's book, many of the references to drugs are not about the kids' own drug taking, but the often problematic drinking and drug use of their parents. It's acted as a warning to the younger generation: Many have been scared off by the role models in their own homes.
"It was something that came up time and time again. From north to south, hundreds of the kids said they were worried about their parents drinking habits," she says. "Loads of them said their parents drank far too much, from problem drinking through to being full-on alcoholics."
Smartphones have also played their part. On top of an already shrinking number of places where teenagers can meet up and have fun, smartphones have increased what she terms "isolated socializing," which leads to less drinking and drug taking. But one of the most crucial impacts on levels of drink and drug use, says Combi, is that social media has created a whole new level of vanity. "We live in a society that is becoming more vain and image conscious. It's like, don't take drugs, eat kale. Teenagers are thinking that if they don't drink and take drugs, if they sit at home drinking green smoothies and meditating, they'll be beautiful and have really shiny hair." And shiny hair looks great on Instagram.
Most influential, according to Combi, is a social paranoia that has been ramped up by smartphones. Generation Z's social circles are not just a group of friends, but a potential swarm of teenage paparazzi, with even fewer morals than the professionals.
"With everything kids do being filmed, they are very aware that being caught wasted on camera isn't a good look. So it's put people off. There is a culture of drink and drug shaming in the media, and this social embarrassment has filtered down to kids. If they get wasted at a party, the likelihood is that it will end up on Instagram or Snapchat. Kids have always been cruel, and most kids who see someone passed out on the floor having wet themselves are going to take a picture."
Teenagers I spoke to backed this up. Emma, a 16-year-old from Surrey, told me that her friends are way more wary than boys of how getting wasted can backfire on your public image. "Being out of control, throwing up, and becoming disheveled are all things that girls tend to try very hard to avoid in order to seem attractive."
Many of the teenagers I spoke to said they were too preoccupied to get high, not just with social media, but with the task of making headway in an increasingly competitive landscape. It was something Combi repeatedly found in her interviews. "There is no luxury of time—everything is pressurised; it's focused on results and what are you going to do with your life," she told me. "The days of stumbling into jobs that are cool are long gone. It's completely changed the face of university. Once upon a time, if you wanted to go to university for three years and piss it up the wall, so what. But now, if you're going to leave with a bunch of debt, you're gong to use those three years carefully."
Even in the last decade, there has been a perceptible change. Since coming to London eight years ago, Hannah, 26, has noticed a difference. "Compared to when I was 18, it's much more normal to go out and not drink, or to have six months off drinking. It's almost as socially acceptable to say you're not drinking as drinking. With drugs, young people are more aware of their mental health, so instead of wanting to get obliterated, sometimes there's more awareness there and self-consciousness."
So is this downturn a blip for an island nation with a reputation as a breeding ground for partiers? Or are drink and drugs likely to go the same way as cigarettes, which experts predict will be virtually obsolete among teenagers within the next 20 years?
"As people become more educated and health conscious, this sort of trend will continue," says Combi. "Having said that, I don't think the world is becoming a happier place by any stretch of the imagination. People need forms of escapism for what's going on around them. But drink and drugs are also about pleasure, and whatever happens, people will always want to party."
Emma says that, for her, the best way of escaping the pressures of "this world that is waiting for us, the world that supposedly at our feet" is by studying, not by getting drunk and high like previous generations.
"In areas like mine, parents are becoming more and more invested in their children's lives," she suggests. "But we've grown up watching their lives, seeing the exhaustion and discontent they breed as well as the living-for-the-weekend mentality—so we've been forced to look for something else. Excess drinking and drugs do not have a place in the lives that teenagers are living anymore; there's just too much to do."
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