On their best behaviour: seeking out the ‘clean teen’

Drug culture is still big but even in Malta, teen awareness on mental health and social media exposure could be fuelling a ‘clean resistance’

Meet Tim, a 22-year-old graphic designer who’s quite typical of other young people his age. Except that, he does not drink. Nor does he consume any drugs: a fact he says made him the brunt of many jokes and snide comments when he attended Junior College at 16.

“Many other students didn’t seem to be able to comprehend how I didn’t need to drink to have a good time, especially at parties. It caused a little embarrassment at first, and certainly made things awkward.”

Six years on, he says things have changed significantly.

“It’s become less of a joke and more respectable,” he says. “People don’t find it weird anymore that I don’t drink much, and I think that’s because they’re actually realising that I may have been right, and that one does not need to drink to have a good time might.”

And Tim is not alone.

All throughout 2017, international media repeatedly picked up on studies which suggest that the youngest generation of people – 12 to 22-year olds – are drinking less and doing less drugs, but it is unclear whether this trend has reached our shores yet, or whether it will affect local youth at all.

Angele, 27, notices that today’s teens are more mindful about the consequences of certain behaviour.

“I think young people nowadays are more aware of mental health. When I was a teen, my peers didn’t care about these things at all.”

Surely enough, Lisa, 19, says that she quit consuming various types of substances due to mental health concerns.

“I was suffering from panic attacks and nicotine rushes, and feeling out of control from drinking made me go nuts. I abstained from drugs due to anxiety also. When I did it, it was totally unheard of [in Malta]. But in the UK, I can name at least five people off the top of my head doing the same thing.”

Others make a comparison between the behaviour of youths in Malta and those in other European cities.

“I noticed such behaviour [abstention] in Eindhoven. Out of over a thousand people, only between five and ten were heavily inebriated, from my point of view. Most were sober and some didn’t drink at all,” Marton, 27, said. “Locally, all the under 22s I know get hammered quite frequently and not just on booze.”

“We differ from other European cities like London due to drinking behaviour. I think elsewhere, young people tend to drink more regularly, whereas we tend to binge drink,” Angele added.

Statistics prove just this, since Malta is among the top five countries surveyed to report ‘heavy episodic drinking in the last 30 days’ (at 47%), out of 37 countries in the latest ESPAD (European School Survey Project) report.

Prof. Andrew Azzopardi, Dean of the Faculty for Social Wellbeing, said that while it is difficult to ascertain changes in the generation’s behaviour, he is sceptical that local youths are reflecting any global trends.

He notes that the previous generation of teenagers didn’t work as much, whereas today’s teens show high levels of employment, which means that they have far more spending money to spend on alcohol and recreational drugs.

“Teenagers nowadays are working a lot more than my generation did when we were their age, so this gives them a lot more liberty to spend it in this manner than we did.”

An influx of foreigners and international students has also changed demographics and drug habits, Azzopardi notes.

Azzopardi also stressed the fact that drug trends are not stable. In the 1990s, he said, drugs such as MDMA (ecstasy) were very popular, and while this is no longer the case today, other types of recreational substances have entered the mainstream.

So while youths of a certain class might be more aware of their appearance on social media, the fact that certain recreational drugs have moved down the social ladder means that they are more widespread socially.

“Drugs such as cocaine used to be reserved for the upper class, while nowadays such a drug is more accessible to the people. The indications are clear, the drug market is increasing and there is more demand.”

In fact, the 2017 EMCDDA country drug report for Malta shows that the number of illicit drug seizures has doubled between 2009 and 2015. In terms of quantity, in 2015, cannabis resin, cocaine, heroin and MDMA were seized in larger amounts than in 2014.

Clearly, drug and alcohol abuse are alive and well and will probably not be going away any time soon. But there’s a segment of the younger generation that is not as quick to resort to alcohol abuse and illicit substances as before, in part due to being held accountable by social media.

“I think drinking has actually become more socially acceptable, but young people have become more cautious because of social media,” Angele says, a sentiment echoed by Marton.

“Everything is caught on video nowadays and the internet does not forget,” he said. “But it’s a social and generational issue, compounded with a bit of economic factors. It’s bound to get complicated.”