Young people in the Nordic countries drink less – increased supervision may be the cause

In all Nordic countries, minors are drinking less than before. Parents and the increased supervision of leisure time may be the root causes.

Alcohol consumption among young Nordic people has decreased in the last ten to fifteen years. In every Nordic country, the proportion of 15-year-olds who have never tasted alcohol has increased. For example, in Sweden the proportion of 15-year-olds who have consumed alcohol has dropped 50 per cent over the last ten years and now stands at around 40 per cent.

These trends and their possible explanations are discussed in the Nordic Welfare Centre’s new report, What’s New About Adolescent Drinking in the Nordic Countries? The report has reviewed several hundred studies on young people’s drinking habits in the Nordic region, and was designed in close collaboration with an expert group of Nordic researchers.

– Among the minors who drink, the number of drinking opportunities is lower than in the past. That is to say, young people drink less often, and the quantities of alcohol are smaller compared to the situation 10-15 years ago. The drinking habits of boys and girls have become more similar. Young people are also older when they drink alcohol for the first time and when they get drunk for the first time, explains researcher Yaira Obstbaum-Federley.

Icelandic young people drink the least, while Danes drink the most

There are also differences between the Nordic countries. Young people in Iceland drink the least, while those in Denmark drink the most. 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.

– In Iceland, the decline in drinking has been the most pronounced, compared to all the Nordic countries. Denmark, on the other hand, is the only Nordic country where alcohol consumption among young people is still above the European average, states Obstbaum-Federley.

“The proportion of young people who have been intoxicated in the last month: 32 per cent in Denmark, 10% in the Faroe Islands, 13% in Finland, 9% in Sweden, 8% in Norway and 3% in Iceland. Source: ESPAD”

Parents have better control

The research has not yet 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 factors has been crucial to the reduction in alcohol consumption.

One possible reason why young people are drinking less is that parents know more about where their children spend their leisure time and that parents have better control – for example, through mobile phones. Parents also seem to have a more restrictive attitude towards underage drinking than they did in the past. Studies also indicate that minors are more likely than ever to find it difficult to obtain alcohol and that this lack of access is associated with drinking less.

– Some researchers also claim that youth culture is simply more anti-alcohol than it used to be. But here too there seem to be differences. In Denmark, drinking alcohol is still perceived more positively and as a more obvious part of youth culture, although attitudes have been changing, notes Obstbaum-Federley.

According to Obstbaum-Federley, there seems to be insufficient research to support the assumption that young people drink less because they spend more time in front of the computer or on social media, but here too there is a need for more research from various perspectives. The theory that cannabis has replaced alcohol does not seem to be accurate, either. Rather, cannabis tends to be used 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 drink and smoke less. At the same time, they experience more symptoms of stress, anxiety and insomnia, among other things. The prevalence of mental illness seems to be increasing in several Nordic countries, and the fact that this is occurring at the same time as alcohol use is decreasing has baffled researchers. It’s also worth pointing out that some studies find a correlation between mental illness in adolescence and alcohol problems in adulthood, says Obstbaum-Federley.

– It’s unclear whether the reduction in underage drinking means that future generations will also drink less as adults. A number of Finnish studies show that less drinking as a minor has not meant less drinking after one turns 18 and is allowed to drink legally. However, drinking cultures are slowly changing and there are some indications that younger adult generations are decreasing their alcohol consumption. However, more studies are needed to elucidate how future generations will drink once they are adults, remarks Obstbaum-Federley.

You can download the report here:
What’s New About Adolescent Drinking in the Nordic Countries (Nordic Welfare Centre, 2019)