Students are hooked on social media, not drugs, while adults can’t kick the habit
Photo: Steve Parsons/PA
8:57AM BST 28 Jul 2014
“My parents don’t understand me,” is the definitive teenage whine. Every generation strives to be unique, works to rebel against the established status quo of their parents.
So as the hippies of the ‘70s re-define standards for middle-age, how does the new generation distinguish of students themselves from the rebels? Teenagers today have found the answer, by shunning alcohol and drugs entirely. The number of 11- to 15-year-olds taking drugs in 2013 is slightly over half the proportion in 2003, while there are a third fewer pupils who have tried alcohol.
There’s no doubt this is partly due to the increased difficulty in getting hold of illegal substances – drink and drugs are more expensive, and pubs and bars are more strict about asking for ID. Another theory argues that we’re getting better at caring for children, which reduces levels of excessive drinking.
Jonathan Birdwell, head of citizenship at Demos think tank, says there’s a strong connection between emotional warmth in the first five year’s of a child’s life and their levels of binge drinking. “There’s increasing focus on the first few years of a child’s life and emotional engagement,” he says. “We’re getting better at parenting.”
Plus, teenagers today are so busy with their extra-curricular activities, there’s hardly time for recreational drug use. “Fears about children’s safety are leading parents to be more protective and keeping them in doors more,” says Birdwell. “And pressures make sure they have a jam-packed schedule so they can get into good schools.”
But teenage use of alcohol and drugs has been steadily declining for a decade, and across Europe and the United States, which suggests there’s a broader trend than any government policy or narrow cultural shift.
How the internet replaced drug-use
Drugs have fallen out of favour just as social media has increased in popularity and, though it sounds incredible, it seems old-fashioned drug addicts have been replaced by internet addicts.
Birdwell says the video game industry and social media have provided teenagers with distractions that weren’t available in the past. “They can create videos, they can do so many more things that are fun and exciting and cool, that they don’t have to do what young people used to do 15 years ago – meet with their friends and go to the park and try and get someone to buy them alcohol,” he says.
And Fiona Measham, criminology professor at Durham, says choosing the internet over intoxication isn’t just about distractions, but a new perspective on what’s considered cool.
“Each generation wants to make it’s mark and be different from the generation before and there’s no doubt that the generation before could be characterised by excessive consumption,” she says. “Given there was such excess in the 1990s, it makes sense for the next generation to distinguish themselves from their older siblings and cousins and one of the key difference would be, compared to 15, 20 years ago, the massive development of social media.”
The new generation seem far more sober overall, says Professor Measham, with teenagers more worried about their futures and careers.
“I talked to a 17 year old who said, ‘We have to stay sober to sort out the mess your generation have made of things’,” she adds. “So there’s that sense of responsibility for the economy, the planet and the local community.”
But while teenagers are more sober than ever before, the silver-haired hippies haven’t lost their drug habits.
Rise of middle-aged drug culture
Teenagers may have decided to just say no, but their parents never learnt.
Among the adult population, there were approximately 230,000 more drug users in 2013/14 than the years before, a 0.7pc rise that means slightly fewer than one in 11 Brits used drugs last year.
Twenty-somethings are not behind the increase, as their drug-use remains relatively stable. Professor Measham says those in their early twenties are limiting their excesses to one night a week, so that they can be fresh for work amid fears of job security.
Instead, those aged from their mid-thirties to mid-fifties are taking more drugs than ever before. Professor Measham says increased drug use reflects the idea of an extended adolescence, with twenty-something living with their parents for longer, and adults partying well into their forties. “At Glastonbury this year, I was amazed by how many middle aged people were taking ecstasy,” she says.
And the recent uptick in drug-use likely reflects improved purity. “Over the past five to ten years there was a disillusionment, the purity was low. The word was out there was no point buying cocaine because it was mostly caffeine and benzocaine,” says Professor Measham. Now the purity is very high, and drugs are still easily available.
So is the end to the drug trade? Or will those drug-dabbling fifty-somethings be bad influence on teenagers today?
“I’d be surprised if they didn’t start to experiment,” says Professor Measham. “Once they get to 18, the world of pubs, clubs, raves, festivals really opens up to them.”
For now though, teenagers are getting their kicks from the alternate realities of the internet, not drugs. A generation of sober teenagers have chosen hacking over hallucinogens.