Enforced Common Sense: How Iceland keeps its Teens healthy

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In Iceland, teenage smoking, drinking and drug use have been radically cut in the past 20 years. How did they do it, and why won’t other countries follow suit?

It’s a little before three on a sunny Friday afternoon and Laugardalur Park, near central Reykjavik, looks practically deserted. There’s an occasional adult with a pushchair, but the park’s surrounded by apartment blocks and houses, and school’s out – so where are all the kids?

Walking with me are Gudberg Jónsson, a local psychologist, and Harvey Milkman, an American psychology professor who teaches for part of the year at Reykjavik University. Twenty years ago, says Gudberg, Icelandic teens were among the heaviest-drinking youths in Europe. “You couldn’t walk the streets in downtown Reykjavik on a Friday night because it felt unsafe,” adds Milkman. “There were hordes of teenagers getting in-your-face drunk.”

We approach a large building. “And here we have the indoor skating,” says Gudberg. A couple of minutes ago, we passed two halls dedicated to badminton and ping pong. Here in the park, there’s also an athletics track, a geothermally heated swimming pool and – at last – some visible kids, excitedly playing football on an artificial pitch.

Young people aren’t hanging out in the park right now, Gudberg explains, because they’re in after-school classes in these facilities, or in clubs for music, dance or art. Or they might be on outings with their parents.

Today, Iceland tops the European table for the cleanest-living teens. The percentage of 15- and 16-year-olds who had been drunk in the previous month plummeted from 42 per cent in 1998 to 5 per cent in 2016. The percentage who have ever used cannabis is down from 17 per cent to 7 per cent. Those smoking cigarettes every day fell from 23 per cent to just 3 per cent.

The way the country has achieved this turnaround has been both radical and evidence-based, but it has relied a lot on what might be termed enforced common sense. “This is the most remarkably intense and profound study of stress in the lives of teenagers that I have ever seen,” says Milkman. “I’m just so impressed by how well it is working.”

If it was adopted in other countries, Milkman argues, the Icelandic model could benefit the general psychological and physical wellbeing of millions of kids, not to mention the coffers of healthcare agencies and broader society. It’s a big if.

Read on…

Comments 7

  1. Enforced Common Sense

    That’s how I was raised. My mother raised me with a healthy dose of an “iron hand.” Yes, there are bad elements of this, but on the whole, I learned more: discipline, social and personal etiquette and the importance of staying in school (although I had no choice in that, but no regrets).

    But, because my mother (and divorced father) smoked, I “naturally” picked up this nasty habit, but after 12 years, quit “cold turkey” (more or less). I still drink socially but not to get drunk or see “how many I can down my throat.”

    We need much more Enforced Common Sense throughout the world and yes, in America just as much. Because of the lack of this, we now have Donald Trump and Mike Pence. That’s no fucking praise, believe me. Some of this Enforced Common Sense needs to come from the State, but not overdoing it. Unfortunately, that’s where it usually gets fucked up. Power-hungry people drink too much of this “kool-aid” and think they have the right to be dictatorial. That’s where Common Sense is needed to the max.

    A major need for this concept is in religion: We need this to keep the young OUT of churches — I would love a law to ban religion until at least 21, but that’s not in reality. I’d go with 18 even, but again, because of the intense brainwashing in societies in favor of some stupid religion, that wouldn’t go over either. My last concession would be 16 years old. Any younger than that and our youth will STILL BE BRAINWASHED because they (vast majority, unless of course they were taught more along the lines of myself with more common sense) won’t possess the cognition to differentiate between truth, history and brainwashed bullshit — including subliminal messaging.

    We’ve become way too “soft” in the areas of discipline and etiquette in today’s societies. Societies could use a bit stronger dose of “military-style” teachings, as long as it stays with truth and common sense without taking away any real personal rights. There were and are ways of doing just this, but Western societies refuse to ignore this.

  2. 🤔Damn, not a one of those kids was smiling in all the pics accompanying the article, oh well at least the government will save in future health costs when all those serious, healthy kids grow up!

  3. Well as a teen I wasn’t keen on organised sport, but perhaps if art and music training or even just safe space for skating, scootering etc were offered as well, it would have tied me down. In fact it did, I spent a lot of time, when I wasn’t busy wanking or very occasionally having ‘participatory’ but not particularly organised, sex, doing just such things.
    But sadly in the UK it is just exactly these programmes (which used to be very well established) that are being cut by Councils who sadly don’t have the money for such things anymore; all paid for by taxes of course, but our current government doesn’t believe in those. In the long run of course it will end up costing us a lot more, in one way or another.
    Chucking kids out of school at 3.30 in the afternoon, when the schools mostly have the space and facilities, even if run by a whole other team, is a very stupid alternative; particularly when the working day for most parents in the UK is still a long one.
    Of course the kids will find some other way to shorten the day.
    Enforced Common Sense, well maybe not, but Loving Common Sense, maybe.

  4. Funny: when I was 16 to 18 I instinctively leaned towards creative music, thanks to some intensive choral singing I did when I was a bit younger. My mother, in the full blossom of her bible-thumpery, fought me every step. Soccer, football, the rougher the contact sport, the better it was “for my character”or so her theory went. I did eventually return to music, but not without an awful lot of tobacco and alcohol along the way.

  5. I read your text and finally couldn’t figure out how did they succeed. Would anyone please tell me how in simpler words?

    1. They succeeded by being healthier — physically and mentally.

      They didn’t need hookah to feel good.

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