These trends have been widely welcomed as representing a shift to a more health-conscious and socially responsible attitude, although on the other hand some have expressed regret that we have been raising a generation of censorious wowsers.
However, new research reported in the Guardian shows that this aversion to risk and social engagement has its negative consequences:
Many young people increasingly choose to stay within a comfort zone of a small network of like-minded friends in which much of their social activity is virtual, according to mental health experts.Obviously the widespread school and university closures and encouragement of working from home during the Covid crisis have served to exacerbate this tendency. And it has been greatly encouraged by the rise of social media over the past fifteen years, which has enabled people to have a high degree of virtual social contact without ever meeting face to face.
While this can give them more control over some aspects of their lives, it can also lead to social anxiety when they have to interact with people offline, the experts added.Natalie Phillips, a psychotherapist who works with children and young people aged from 11 to 25, said: “I’m seeing a disproportionate increase in referrals for social anxiety, professional anxiety, general self-confidence and relationship issues for this generation when they are confronted with the reality of being in an office, being in a nightclub, being in a pub, or being on a date.”
However, a major factor behind this withdrawal from society that doesn’t get the recognition it deserves must be the sustained campaign to discourage young people from socialising in pubs. In the 1970s, we were able to drink in pubs from the age of 16, some even earlier. The licensees knew it was happening, and so did the police, but in general they were happy to turn a blind eye unless there was any trouble. There were no mobile phones and no internet, so arranging meets in the pub was an obvious and straightforward way to socialise.
At this time, there were no fun pubs or circuit bars, so you had to mix in with other customers with a variety of different ages. Indeed it was often the smaller and less improved pubs that were the most welcoming to under-18s. Knowing that you would be out on your ear, no questions asked, if you stepped out of line helped encourage responsible behaviour. While there is a lot of pious guff talked about pubs being a controlled drinking environment, in this situation the argument did apply. Young people were learning how to drink in a social setting and keep their consumption and behaviour in check.
The same continued at university, although now with the cloud of possible underage drinking having been lifted. The pub was the natural place for students to socialise. Some may suggest I am looking at this through rose-tinted spectacles, and certainly there were examples of trouble, refusal of service and drinking far too much (although most of my bad experiences of alcohol in my teens occurred in private houses). But overall I would say this tolerated rite of passage into adulthood did far more good than harm.
However, from the 1990s onwards, things started to change as there was a growing moral panic in society about the evils of underage drinking, and so ever-increasing pressure was put on pubs to strictly enforce the law. Asking your age turned to ID cards, and Challenge 21 became Challenge 25. Not only were you unable to get a drink if you were under 18, but even if you were well over you would be treated with great suspicion. No longer were pubs available as a social venue for young people that was open to all comers and did not judge you. It should be stressed that the finger of blame should not be pointed at the pubs themselves – it is simply no longer worth them taking the risk.
Of course young people can still consume soft drinks, but licensees are understandably wary of mixed groups where it’s impossible to control who is drinking what, and many venues where under-25s gather are now strictly over-18 only. And under-18s can’t drink alcohol-free beers, as they are age-restricted products due to carrying alcohol branding.
Much socialising now takes place in parental homes, where there is likely to be a more tolerant attitude than fifty years ago, or in private flats and houses. In both of these settings, who is allowed in is controlled, so you can’t just casually walk in. It may move to the street or park benches, where adult supervision is non-existent and the alcohol may well have been bought on the black market.
Or, as the study has shown, informal, unstructured socialising between young people has just ceased to exist as they retreat into a virtual world, which carries its own dangers of people not being who they seem. This policy had undoubtedly resulted in a great reduction in underage drinking in licensed venues, but it’s very questionable whether it has brought about an overall benefit to young people’s social development. And it has damaged pubs, as if people don’t get into the habit of visiting them when young they probably never will.
In contrast, it’s interesting that Japan – which of course is a very different society – is now urging young people to drink more to boost the economy.