Beyond the fact that Scandinavia is apparently teaming with serial killers hunted by stern emotionally distant detectives wearing sensible jumpers (at least if prestige television is anything to go by) our frozen cousins’ social programs are often looked up to with a kind of jealous awe. There’s a general sense that there’s just something inherently wholesome about the Hygge-prone Scandinavians (once again, fictional serial killer excluded) that makes them cut out for socialist paradises in a way that us binge-drinking Britons somehow don’t have the psychological complexion for.
This is of course nonsense, however there are certainly aspects of the Scandinavian model that should be examined to see if they have any application on this side of the cliffs of Dover. Of particular interest to educators and parents (particularly as heavy government cuts are set to come down on our own educational sector) is Iceland. In the late 90s Iceland’s youth were less culturally informed by hygge than by their own Viking ancestry, with a reputation as some of the heaviest drinking teens in Europe (a hotly contested title at the best of times), but the last twenty years have seen a sober revolution in their teens, which has seen Icelandic youth making a sharp U-turn from drunk and disorderly to currently topping the European table for cleanest-living teens (which admittedly sounds like a contradiction in terms). Surveys show that the percentage of 15- and 16-year-olds who have admitted 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.
Clearly something unusual was happening to explain such a cultural shift and indeed the epicentre of this cultural youthquake is a government program called Youth In Action which simultaneously managed to step radically outside of the box in regards to educational thinking whilst relying heavily on evidence and peer review to help dictate policy direction. Youth In Action has its origins with a school questionnaires for 14-16 year olds sent out to every school in Iceland circa 1992 which was filled with questions like “Have you ever been drunk? Have you tried cigarettes? Do you have a close relationship with your parents? What kind of activities do you take part in?” The questionnaire was then repeated in 1995 and 1997.
The results of these surveys were alarming. Nationally, almost 25 per cent were smoking every day, over 40 per cent had got drunk in the past month. However the data provided meant that the government were able to focus into the minutiae of the differences between the teens who had abused substances and those who didn’t. The central factors which were shared by the sober teens boiled down to participation in organised activities (generally sports) three or four times a week, feeling involved in school, a larger amount of time spent with parents during the week and not being outdoors in the late evenings.
Using the survey data and insights from a radical new national plan was introduced that developed into the modern version of Youth in Iceland. It became illegal to buy tobacco under the age of 18 and alcohol under the age of 20, and tobacco and alcohol advertising was banned. Links between parents and school were strengthened through parental organisations which by law had to be established in every school, along with school councils with parent representatives. Parents were encouraged to attend talks on the importance of spending a significant quantity of time with their children rather than occasional “quality time”, on talking to their kids about their lives, on knowing who their kids were friends with, and on keeping their children home in the evenings. Most importantly (and most radically) was a law, still in effect, that was passed which forbade children aged between 13 and 16 from being outside after 10pm in winter and midnight in summer.
State funding was increased for organised sport, music, art, dance and other clubs, to give kids alternative ways to feel part of a group, and to feel good, rather than through using alcohol and drugs, and kids from low-income families received help to take part. In Reykjavik, for instance, where more than a third of the country’s population lives, a Leisure Card gives families 35,000 krona (£250) per year per child to pay for recreational activities. Between 1997 and 2012, the percentage of kids aged 15 and 16 who reported often or almost always spending time with their parents on weekdays doubled (from 23 per cent to 46 per cent) and the percentage who participated in organised sports at least four times a week increased from 24 per cent to 42 per cent. Meanwhile, cigarette smoking, drinking and cannabis use in this age group plummeted.
The question is whether this approach could successfully be imported abroad; Iceland has a total population of 323,000 with an effectively negligible homeless problem compared to the United Kingdom’s 64.1 million inhabitants and a far more diffuse culture which may resist blanket attempts to impose restrictions on their children’s activities. Regardless of these issues of scale, there have been recent attempts to export the program (creatively entitled Youth In Europe) which have begun to meet with limited success, Bucharest, for example, the rate of teen suicides is dropping alongside use of drink and drugs. In Kaunas, the number of children committing crimes dropped by a third between 2014 and 2015. However for countries such as Britain, the plans require a symbiosis between the state and parents and an ability not to rankle at government proscribed morality that in many ways simply does not exist. Whilst Iceland may have hit on a system that works, it would require a great deal of cultural change before many would accept that it would work here.