Sweet sixteen no longer

21st November 1997, 12:00am
John Walshe


Sweet sixteen no longer

European teenagers enjoy a drink, smoke the occasional cigarette, like reading and sport and, in Scandinavia at least, slot machines. John Walshe reports on a survey of 70,000 16-year-olds

Letters between a Turkish 16-year-old and a Danish penfriend of the same age would tend to be short if a massive survey of European youth is anything to go by.

Evenings at the local bar might prove an epistolary non-starter. Nearly half of Turkish 16-year-olds have never tasted alcohol in contrast to Danish teenagers, a quarter of whom have been on drinking binges.

Drugs might also prove a tricky subject. Nearly 90 per cent of Danish 16-year-olds have heard of methadone, and a fifth have tried cannabis. As only 4 per cent of their Turkish counterparts have smoked pot they would probably prefer to talk about television or reading - two of their favourite activities.

And if the penfriends managed to overcome their lifestyle differences to strike up a long-term correspondence, one other contrast would become apparent: the Turkish teenager, being more likely to truant from school, would have far more time to compose his or her letter.

The European School Survey Project on Alcohol and Other Drugs, from which these findings have been extracted, was the biggest of its kind, involving almost 70,000 students in 24 European countries. The students studied were born in 1979 and the data was collected in spring 1995.

Most 16-year-old Europeans had consumed alcohol and at least half had smoked, according to the survey. More than 95 per cent of 16-year-olds in the Czech Republic, Denmark and the Slovak Republic reported that they had drunk alcohol at least once. The figures were lower in Turkey (61 per cent) and the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Norway and Portugal with 79 per cent each.

The proportion who had drunk alcohol 40 times or more varied greatly. The highest proportions were found in Denmark (49 per cent), the UK (42 per cent), Ireland and Malta (34 per cent both). The smallest were in Norway (8 per cent) and Turkey (10 per cent).

In the UK, Denmark and Finland students had been drunk three times or more during the 30 days prior to the survey. The most frequent binge drinking - five drinks or more in a row - was in Ireland (23 per cent), the UK and Denmark (22 per cent each) and Italy (20 per cent). Smaller proportions were reported in Portugal (4 per cent) and Turkey (5 per cent). Boys were more likely to binge drink and delinquency sparked by alcohol was more common in boys.

On average 17 per cent of the participating boys had been involved in a "scuffle or fight" compared with 7 per cent of girls. About 13 per cent of the boys had driven a vehicle under the influence of alcohol and had been in trouble with the police.

Many of the teeenagers knew about drugs although methadone was unfamiliar to many except in Denmark. In Estonia, Lithuania and Slovak Republic only about 8 per cent had heard of it.

The UK and Ireland reported higher levels of illicit drug use than the other countries. Many countries seem not to have a serious drug problem as they reported levels of illegal drug use of below 10 per cent. Cannabis was the substance that most had tried, but the greatest use of LSD and other hallucinogenic drugs was found in the UK (14 per cent) which tied with Ireland for use of Ecstasy (9 per cent).

The most frequently-used illicit drug was cannabis. The highest proportions of students who had tried cannabis were in the UK (41 per cent), Ireland (37 per cent) and the Czech Republic (22 per cent). The lowest figures were Lithuania (1 per cent) and Hungary and Turkey (4 per cent). When asked if they had used cannabis 20 times or more, 15 per cent of UK respondents said yes.

Most of the students got their first illegal drug from someone they knew well. Illicit drugs were reported to be easy to obtain in Ireland, the UK and Italy.

The proportion of students who watch TV or video for four hours per day or more was highest in the UK and Turkey (around 45 per cent), followed by Croatia and Lithuania (40 per cent both). Lowest figures were found in Italy and Slovenia (around 16 per cent).

The Faroe Islands topped the smoking league - almost all students had smoked at least once. In no country were the proportions lower than 50 per cent.

Some students had tried to smoke a few times while others smoke regularly. Countries with the highest proportion of students who have smoked 40 times or more include the Faroe Islands (42 per cent), Ireland (37 per cent) and Finland (35 per cent).

The survey also examined leisure activities. Playing on slot machines was most common in Norway (60 per cent) and Finland (48 per cent) and least common in the Faroes and Slovenia (2 per cent both). Playing computer games is fairly common in most of the survey countries. Highest percentages were in the UK (74 per cent) and Denmark (71 per cent). Ukraine reported the lowest figure (23 per cent).

Most students in most countries took part in sports, athletics or other physical exercises. The highest figures are found in Portugal, Sweden, the Slovak Republic and UK (around 93 per cent) and the lowest in Ukraine (15 per cent). Reading for pleasure was popular in many countries - 72 per cent of Estonian students do so, as did 66 per cent of students in Hungary, Portugal and Turkey. The smallest percentage was found in Ukraine (23 per cent).

The largest numbers of students who truanted for three or more days were reported in Turkey and Ukraine - around 19 per cent.

The study was carried out under the aegis of the Swedish Council for Information on Alcohol and Other Drugs and the Pompidou Group of the Council of Europe.

You’ve reached your limit of free articles this month

Register for free to read more

You can read two more articles on Tes for free this month if you register using the button below.

Alternatively, you can subscribe for just £1 per month for the next three months and get:

  • Unlimited access to all Tes magazine content
  • Exclusive subscriber-only articles 
  • Email newsletters

Already registered? Log in

You’ve reached your limit of free articles this month

Subscribe to read more

You can subscribe for just £1 per month for the next three months and get:

  • Unlimited access to all Tes magazine content
  • Exclusive subscriber-only articles 
  • Email newsletters