Researcher: Emptiness is driving teenagers to drink

Adolescent smoking is down, use of other drugs 'lowest in Europe,' but professor warns of alcohol's lure.

alcohol image 88 (photo credit: )
alcohol image 88
(photo credit: )
A national program to get teenagers interested in productive ways to spend their time is needed to reduce the "emptiness" that causes a growing number of them to drink alcohol, according to a Bar-Ilan University sociologist. Dr. Yossi Harel-Fisch, director of the International Research Program on Adolescent Well Being and Health at BIU's School of Education's criminology department, has been tracking teenage behavior and feelings for two decades. He told The Jerusalem Post in an interview this week that he is very concerned about the phenomenon. Harel-Fisch has been producing biennial surveys of Israeli teenagers for Israeli decision-makers and for the World Health Organization to compare with some 40 other developed countries in North America and Europe. His next report on youths aged 11 to 15 is due to be published in about two months. He is pleased that one risky behavior - smoking - has been declining among Israeli adolescents over the past four or five years. The smoking rate among girls had risen a few years ago, but now it has gone down. "Nargila [water-pipe] smoking has been fashionable among teenagers, but we were surprised that it has declined. Warnings about dangers to health don't speak to teenagers, but the fact is that - due to educational campaigns and the current culture against smoking - it is not 'fashionable' and does not make them socially acceptable," he said. That is Harel-Fisch's good news, but the bad news is that the rate of drinking alcoholic beverages by teenagers here has increased "significantly and even dramatically." It is illegal to sell alcohol - beer, vodka or tequila is what interests them - to a minor, he added, but kids have no trouble getting their hands on it by asking an adult to buy it for them as they waited outside. Ten percent of 11-year-old boys have a history of drinking alcohol (not for ritual purposes) once a month. "This is not so dangerous on its own, but it is the base of a pyramid that leads to more problematic behavior the younger one starts. I have been saying for years that Israeli society is running after risky behaviors rather than dealing with causes and trying to prevent them. The rise in alcohol use comes comes from a lack of positive content in children's lives. School should become a positive experience; clubs, youth movements or volunteering can help fill the void. We don't offer them alternatives, so instead of offering something constructive, they look for new risky behaviors and things to occupy them," Harel-Fisch said. He noted that teenagers' taking of drugs (other than alcohol) was relatively low in Israel, in fact the lowest rate in Europe. "Seven to 10% try drugs. It is a problem, but not as serious as alcohol," he said. Harel-Fisch urged the authorities to give a consistent message to fight alcohol use among teenagers: It is not legitimate for children under 18 to drink alcohol (except for ritual purposes); those who drink anyway must do it in an adult manner, responsibly and in moderate amounts; if you drink, don't drive or be the passenger of a driver who drinks. Don't get into an intimate relationship with someone when you drink, as this can lead to infectious disease and date rape; if you do engage in social drinking, you are responsible for every adolescent who is with you; even call a parent of a teenager who wants to drive after drinking to have him or her take the teenager home. The Bar-Ilan researcher advised the Health and Education ministries, the Anti-Drug Authority, the Road Safety Authority, municipalities, parents groups and schools to get this clear message across immediately, before it was too late. "We write up our findings and recommend to schools and communities a variety of strategies and policies through my private institute, Wellbeing International. We have already advised the Amal school network how to reduce violence and promote wellbeing in schools," he said.