PROFESSOR SIR PETER GLUCKMAN interviewed by GUYON
PAUL Every week it seems we hear tragic stories involving young people and their families. James Webster died in May drinking that bottle of Vodka he acquired. News came this week that 71 New Zealanders aged 19 or under killed themselves in the year 08/09. The Prime Minister's asked his Chief Science Adviser, Professor Sir Peter Gluckman to get to the bottom of what's going on with young people and families, to offer evidence and advice. Sir Peter is nearing the conclusion of his work and he says young people face a powder keg of issues. Guyon Espiner now talks with Sir Peter about what's to be done.
GUYON Well Sir Peter thanks very much for joining us, we appreciate your time. Let's start with youth suicide, those appalling statistics that were seeing, 15 to 19 year olds have the highest rate in the developed world and are taking their own lives at something like double the rate of developed countries, double the average. This is obviously a complex area, but what are the main factors driving that problem?
SIR PETER GLUCKMAN - Chief Science Adviser
Well I think it's only the tip, a reflection of the total problem of the complexity of the world in which young people live. The fact that in New Zealand we have looked at it in a compartmentalised way, rather than looking at it in an integrated way, and we've ended up with a group of young people for whom depression is a significant issue. The capacity to resist peer pressures and risk taking behaviours is a particularly severe issue, and it's reflected sadly in suicide, but it just is the most extreme demonstration of the fact that this country's not doing well.
GUYON I want to talk about depression, which you note as a significant driver, but if I could just raise one of the issues that was raised on the panel before, and that is the media reporting of this. Essentially the media faces heavy restrictions on reporting of suicide. Do you think we need to be more open in the media and in society about talking about suicide in New Zealand?
SIR PETER I think we have to confront the issue that our young people are not doing well, and this is reflected in suicide. I think there is a lot of evidence however that leads us to caution, that if we go into details about youth suicide in the practical sense, there's a high risk of copycat suicide. There is good evidence of clustering youth suicide.
GUYON Because you could argue that what we're doing now, which isn't talking about it, isn't working?
SIR PETER Well that's the point, we haven't talked about the whole problem, of the fact that our young people are not doing well. And of course that's why one of the first things the Prime Minister asked me to do was think about it. I think in thinking about it, the first thing to realise, for everybody to realise, is there's no single magic bullet.
GUYON No but in terms of talking about it, and the media conversation about it, that is not a part of the solution, being more open is not part of the solution?
SIR PETER Of course it is. I mean exactly, the whole point in my interim report is to raise the questions. If you don't know what the questions are, you can't seek the answers. But I think as one of your panellists
said, we need to distinguish between talking about the issue of youth depression, the problems of youth, and elevating the risk of clustering effects of youth suicide and severe risk-taking behaviour. There's a lot of literature to suggest this is a real risk.
GUYON You talk about depression in youth, and in fact you mentioned that about 20% of people are affected by depression before the age of 18. Yet only about one in four get treatment, 75% of these people aren't getting any treatment at all. Is that due to the dearth of services in that area?
SIR PETER Also the dearth of recognition that young people do get depression, that the blues sometimes do need support. And I think one of the points we also make in our interim report is that parents do not necessarily have the skill set for today's world that our parents had for our world when we were young, because the world has changed so much. And so parents don't know how to handle it, and so what is actually sometimes quite severe problems are not recognised either by parents or teachers or anybody until it manifests with some tragedy. I think that if you're talking about sheltered depression, you've gotta realise that the problem doesn't start in adolescence, and you have Dame Lesley on the programme, she and I would both agree as would our panel that problems start much earlier in life. And therefore if we're going to address these issues, just to focus on the adolescent, rather than focusing on the whole of life approach, will fail.
GUYON I want to pick up on some of those points a little bit later, but if I can turn to alcohol, because alcohol and drugs is obviously another significant problem, and alcohol itself would probably be the largest of those problems among the drug and alcohol sort of range. How significant was the reduction of the drinking age to 18 as a factor, back in 1999. I mean is that still a driving force of a lot of these problems?
SIR PETER Well the OECD just released a report on the state of the world's children late last year. And the evidence summarised in that report is quite clear, that the greater accessibility of young people to alcohol, associated with changed drinking ages, is a real fact, and the evidence is clear, that it is a factor in an increase in acting out and risk-taking behaviours.
GUYON So we hear that the reduction to the age of 18 sort of produced a de facto age of 15 or 16. Is there any evidence to suggest that that is the case in New Zealand?
SIR PETER I'm sure that is the case, but you asked me that I need to speak to the evidence, and I'm not aware of the specific scientist evidence supporting that from this country. But clearly the international evidence is clear that when you lower the drinking age you extend the accessibility to even younger people, because of the way in which kids access alcohol.
GUYON So will you be recommending to the government that the drinking age is raised back up to 20? Is that your view?
SIR PETER Well the Prime Minister knows my view personally is that, but I think I've gotta be very careful. The role of a Science Adviser is diminished if he enters recommendations on policy. The role of a
Science Adviser is to put the summary of the best evidence on the table for all those involved in policy formation, and let them reach them reach their conclusions.
GUYON But the evidence essentially is that the greater availability of alcohol helps exacerbate these problems.
SIR PETER Absolutely.
GUYON How much of this is new though? I mean 25 years ago when I was in high school, 14, 15, 16 year olds were going to pubs, going to liquor stores and drinking.
PETER But not in the way
they do now.
GUYON What's changed? What's different?
SIR PETER Big change in the fundamental nature of society. We've changed the way we rear our children. Teenage years are much less structured than they were. The role of parents and teachers as the sources of authority, have been displaced far more by peer pressure than they were. The impact of the media is greater. The role model situation of celebrities and so forth, is very different and against that background the range of alcohols is different. Alcopops etc etc, the access to drugs alongside alcohol. All of this combined in a very different way. The fundamental sociology of young people has changed. Now we can add some biological aspects to it as well.
GUYON Let's break that down. So are you essentially saying that the break down of the family, the move away perhaps from the traditional two parent family has been a big cause of this?
SIR PETER No, no, I'm not saying the break down of the family& In fact there's quite a lot of evidence that the - we've gotta distinguish here between major effects and minor effects. While our knee-jerk reaction might be that different family structures do matter, in fact the OECD evidence would be that the effect of a single parent family in the right context is relatively small. What has changed is the sources of authority for young people. Whereas parents and teachers were the major sources of authority 25 years ago, now the role of the peer and the peer group, is far greater than it was.
GUYON But is that different? I mean in the 60s and 70s young people idolised rock stars who smashed up hotel rooms and took heroin.
SIR PETER Yeah but the kids didn't have access to it that they do now.
GUYON So it's the pervasiveness?
SIR PETER There's a fundamental change in which young people have been reared. And I think for Anglophone countries it's a particular issue, and one of the things in your intro was the fact that there are different effects across different countries, and the Anglophone countries seem to have a particular challenge. Australia, New Zealand, Canada, United States, Britain... My own bias, and this is where we're trying to accumulate the evidence, is that the big change has been 25 years ago, children up to the age of 10 or so, were less controlled in the sense that they could engage in more autonomous decision-making and if you like minor risk-taking behaviour, climbing trees and playing in playgrounds. And the teenage years were relatively more structured, because there were less options at school etc etc. That's reversed. We now have our pre-teen years as very rigorously controlled, and we have much less control over what adolescents do with Facebook, internet, etc etc. They have more access to lots of ways of doing things in their lives.
GUYON How influential is that new media, that social media, the texting, the Face Book and things?
SIR PETER Oh enormously, enormously.
GUYON Is it? In what ways?
SIR PETER Well, in multiple dimensions. But if we take two, one is in the social dimension. It changes the whole way in which young people interact with each other, which drives a difference. Text bullying is a very different phenomenon from bullying by a single individual in the playground, which can be dealt with. Secondly, there's good biological evidence that brains can cope with a relatively small network of people very well. But what we now have is young people having to cope with a much broader network of people and a lot of it involving non-verbal, non-body language communication, which is very different.
GUYON So what should parents - I know it's not technically your role to advise them either - but what should they do? Is it bad for children to have Facebook accounts before they're 16 or 17? Should we have more controls on this?
SIR PETER I think we're focusing on the wrong point in the life cycle. I would be focusing much earlier in life, and giving children in the first six years of life a lot more skills so that they're more resilient to cope with these issues, which are inevitable later in life. All the evidence - and it's compelling evidence, absolutely compelling - is that if we want to create children who are more resilient to going through the later stages of life, developing those skills of how to make judgements, how to act more responsibly, and think about consequential influences of what they do, is determined before six years of age.
GUYON So what do we do about that? Because you can't be in everyone's home. I mean what do governments do, and what do public policy people do?
SIR PETER Well there's three things. Well we have to get beyond party politics. We have to get beyond silo-ridden discussions between health, education, social welfare. This requires integrated learning approach of evaluating programmes as we trial them. But fundamentally, we need to think about the fact that the ability to learn these skills of how to cope in society, requires high quality preschool and early school education. And it requires for vulnerable families, which are reasonably easy to identify in macro terms, a willingness to target your resources heavily. All the literature says no society can cope with giving everybody what might be theoretically ideal. But targeting is the way to go, because there are so many families for whom this is not a particular issue.
GUYON If you look at social spending, it peaks in the teenage years. That's where it's mainly focused isn't it? Are you saying we should shift those resources to the earlier?
SIR PETER Well the evidence is overwhelming. If you could invest more in the earlier years your expenditure in later years will be less. For example, some of the best programmes overseas, which have been well evaluated, are reporting 40% reductions in crime rate, massive increases in earning capacity of young people, greater entry into employment. Economists including Nobel laureates have done the calculations, to show quite significant rates of return on proper high intensity investment in vulnerable families early in life. The trouble is we all silo it and think about minor adjustments to it as being the way to address the issue. So for example the OECD raises questions about the macro report, raises questions about the domestic purposes benefit. A politically touchy area, but they would point out that the same resources after the children at a certain age, invested into those families in a different way to ensure high intensity education, is likely to produce better benefits for both mother, child, and society. We need to be open, get away from - look at the evidence, and then as a nation say our children are our most important asset for the future, let's get into a situation being prepared to invest for the long-term. That's why the Prime Minister's asked me to look at the question.
GUYON Just finally, I want to look at some of the science around the development of the brain, because there's emerging body of evidence which suggests that the brain in terms of its executive functions of judgement and impulse control, just simply isn't developed until the third decade of life, and maybe into your early- and even mid-20s. Do you concur with that?
SIR PETER Well I was one of the ones who raised this evidence as an academic, and so do I confer? The evidence is overwhelming. The issue is, is this a new thing or an old thing that has always been there, and we didn't recognise it. That's an unanswered question. But I think the evidence is quite clear that we can do better in providing these, in technical terms, non cognitive capabilities, by investment in the first few years of life. Now different programmes will work better in different contexts. That's why we've got to be prepared to be open, self evaluative and look at how we do best for the different parts of our community, be them Pasifika, Maori, people of low socio economic status, people where there's histories of drug abuse, alcohol abuse in families, because those intergenerational influences are real. I should add one last comment in this. There is actually good evidence that the brain chemistry is changed by events like child abuse and maltreatment in early life, in the very way that leads to these adverse behaviours later in life. So this is not just about subtle changes in brain maturation. There are fundamental changes in the way brain cells talk to each other, induced by these events in early life.
GUYON Final quick question. You have the unenviable task in many ways of recommending solutions to all this. How fundamental and how expensive to administer are your recommendations going to be?
SIR PETER Well number one is, the steps in this process are one, let's have a national conversation about what the problem is. That's what we've started doing. Number two, let's admit that we need to have a more integrated approach than what we have now, which is step number two. And I think the national conversation is moving in that direction. Number three is, let's encourage our policy makers to look at whether we have the balance where the investment is right. I don't think we're talking high - in the narrow sense yes, it may be that there appears to be an expense, but the economists tell us the rate of return is worth it.
GUYON Alright, we'll have to leave it there,
but thank you very much for your time, we appreciate it.