Being a teenager is hard with all the chaos that is finding one’s identity and dealing with the incoming stresses of life. In many places around the world, teens react to these pressures by using illicit substances or otherwise “misbehaving”. Iceland was having a huge problem with teens drinking and smoking throughout the 90s, then they decided to do something about it. Today Iceland has pretty much eliminated smoking among teens and substance abuse is almost a rounding error on surveys.
The solution that Iceland discovered is to give teenagers something to do. It’s that simple. Instead of having bored kids trying to find something to kill time, give them something that they find enjoying.
“We didn’t say to them, you’re coming in for treatment. We said, we’ll teach you anything you want to learn: music, dance, hip hop, art, martial arts.” The idea was that these different classes could provide a variety of alterations in the kids’ brain chemistry, and give them what they needed to cope better with life: some might crave an experience that could help reduce anxiety, others may be after a rush.
At the same time, the recruits got life-skills training, which focused on improving their thoughts about themselves and their lives, and the way they interacted with other people. “The main principle was that drug education doesn’t work because nobody pays attention to it. What is needed are the life skills to act on that information,” Milkman says. Kids were told it was a three-month program. Some stayed five years.