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Dr Muriel Newman

Problem or Fact of Life?

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What is happening to our young people? They disrespect their elders, they disobey their parents. They ignore the law. They riot in the streets inflamed with wild notions. Their morals are decaying. What is to become of them?

There is a widespread perception that today’s youth are more badly behaved than ever before. The fact is, however, that such concerns have always been with us. The above quote is attributed to Plato in 400 BC – and the following quote is an inscription on a 6,000-year-old Egyptian tomb: “We live in a decaying age. Young people no longer respect their parents. They are rude and impatient. They frequently inhabit taverns and have no self-control.

To get a better idea of what is really going on with our young let’s have a look at some research.

First of all, the recent death by alcohol poisoning of a 16 year-old King’s College school student has raised serious concerns about binge drinking amongst young people. The Chief Coroner set the record straight by releasing data to show that the number of young people who have died as a result of binge drinking, since the beginning of July 2007, is 12. Between July 2007 and February 2010 the number of people of all age groups who have died of alcohol poisoning stands at 83.

According to a Law Commission report on youth and alcohol from 1996 to 2003, the percentage of publicly funded hospitalisations for young people aged from 15 to 19 -where the primary diagnosis was alcohol related – fell from 15.3 percent in the year 2000 to 12.5 percent in 2003.[1] This included the period where the drinking age was lowered.

When it comes to traffic accidents, Ministry of Transport figures show that in the 12 months to September 2009, young drivers aged from 15 to 19 were involved in crashes that resulted in 67 deaths, 21 of which involved alcohol. However, over the years, the number of road deaths involving young drivers has reduced dramatically from the peak in 1987 when 195 young drivers died. Similarly, the number of young drivers involved in crashes where alcohol was recorded as a factor has dropped from a maximum of 418 accidents in 1995, to 298 in 2003.[2]

While road fatalities attract a great deal of attention and public money, more New Zealanders die from suicide. Between 2004 and 2007, while 1,654 people died on the roads, suicide claimed 2,008 lives. Of those, 198 were young people between the ages of 15 and 19.

According to a report “Doing Better for Children” published by the OECD last year, the latest youth suicide statistics puts New Zealand above all other OECD countries: New Zealand’s rate of 15.9 deaths per 100,000 young people aged 15 to 19 compares with a rate of only 3 deaths per 100,000 in the UK, 7.7 in the US, 8.5 in Australia, 9.5 in Ireland, and 10 in Canada. The OECD average is 6.9 deaths per 100,000 15 to 19 year olds.[3]

New Zealand ’s highest recorded rate of youth suicide was in 1997 when 72 young people in the 15 to 19 age group took their own lives. For the younger 10 to 14 age group, the highest number was 12 children who died in 1998. In comparison, in 2007, 42 young people in the 15 to 19 year age group died, and 2 children aged between 10 and 14.[4]

When it comes to youth crime, the trend is downwards. A Ministry of Justice report shows that the child apprehension rate for 10 to 13 year olds has fallen from a peak of 543 per 10,000 head of population in 1996 to 336 in 2008, and the youth apprehension rate for 14 to 16 year olds has fallen from a peak of 1,926 in 1996 to 1,572 in 2008.[5] In addition, both child and youth apprehensions for property offences, which is the most common category of offence, have fallen to an all time low in 2007 and 2008. When it comes to violent offences, while child apprehensions are stable, youth rates had increased by 13 percent. However, overall offending by young people over the last decade has fallen by 15 percent.

In any policy area where there is heightened public concern, there is a temptation for politicians to propose high profile ‘solutions’ designed to appease community unease. The real question is whether such solutions are largely window dressing, leading to more regulation and higher taxpayer costs, or whether they will genuinely produce better outcomes.

The National Government has already announced a range of policy responses that they claim will improve outcomes for young people and society as a whole. These include raising the driving age from 15 to 16, a move that they expect will save 4 lives a year, and introducing a zero blood alcohol limit for drivers under the age of 20, which they expect will save 2 lives a year.[6]

In the area of youth offending, falling crime rates have not stopped politicians from pushing ahead with a very expensive youth justice facility which opened this weekend in Rotorua at a cost of $47 million. This new facility, which has 30 beds for 12 and 13 year old young offenders, takes the number of such residences around the country, to 4.

However, the strategy of placing young offenders together in large institutions has been criticised by a former Youth Court Judge who has labeled them as a ‘gateway to prison’. Carolyn Henwood is strongly of the view that the relatively small number of children who commit most of the country’s youth crime need very close individual care, not institutionalisation.[7]

With regards to alcohol, while the Law Commission in its recent report recommended a number of sweeping law changes – including substantially increasing the excise tax, introducing stronger regulations relating to the sale and advertising of alcohol, and raising the drinking age back up to 20 (it was lowered from 21 to 20 in 1967, then to 18 in 1999) – the government’s intended response is unclear.

This week’s NZCPR Guest Commentator is policy analyst David Seymour, an expatriate New Zealander based in Canada , who believes an excessive use of alcohol by young people is a symptom of a far wider problem. In his articleYouth Alcohol Abuse is the Symptom of a Wider Disease  he states:

“The question at the heart of the youth alcohol abuse debate should be why so many youth have decided that such a destructive activity is worth giving up their other opportunities. Most of the popular explanations are variations on the theme that alcohol has become more seductive. The lowered purchase age and more outlets have made it more available; the synthesis of alcopop drinks has made it more digestible, advertising has made it more desirable. The logical conclusion is that if only these could be reversed, youth would switch back to safer, more productive activities.

“Or perhaps the root of our troubles is that other opportunities have become less meaningful for youth. Over the past decade, their efforts and choices in education, the housing market, and the economy have been trivialised, meaning they have less to lose by getting sloshed.”

He concludes by saying “Even ignoring the impracticality of taking alcohol away from the young, doing so would leave a much more serious problem untouched in our society. The only real long-term solution to youth alcohol abuse is to attack its root cause; the diminishing ability of youth to make a difference in their own lives.”

David’s article raises not only the wider issue of intergenerational equity, whereby the younger generation are expected to carry the cost burden of long term public policy decisions on welfare, health, superannuation and so on, but also the wisdom of short term policies that adversely impact youth opportunities – such as Sue Bradford’s abolition of the youth wage.

However, the real question – given that concerns about the behaviour of young people, is neither isolated nor new – is whether anything can realistically be done? Clearly the politicians, whose stock and trade is to be seen to be solving problems (rather than actually solving them!) like to think so – and it is definitely in their interest to create alarm even if it is not justified. But as tragic as it may be that the consequences of irresponsible youth can lead to disastrous results, the question remains as to whether or not this is a problem that can be solved.

1.Ministry of Justice, Young People and Alcohol
2.Ministry Transport, Young Drivers – crash statistics
3.OECD, Doing Better for Children 
4.Ministry of Health, Suicide Facts
5.Ministry of Transport, Safer Journeys
6.Min Just, Child and Youth Offending Statistics 
7.Herald, Youth facility just gateway to jail