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Inside the newsroom: Fighting opioid crisis may mean quantity time with teens

The main downtown area of Reykjavik, Iceland is pictured on Aug. 9, 2015. In the late 1990s, Iceland had one of the worst rates of teen substance abuse in Europe. Today, Iceland has the lowest rate of teen substance abuse in Europe.
The main downtown area of Reykjavik, Iceland is pictured on Aug. 9, 2015. In the late 1990s, Iceland had one of the worst rates of teen substance abuse in Europe. Today, Iceland has the lowest rate of teen substance abuse in Europe.
Larry MacDougal, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — Twenty years ago Iceland had a problem. Its teenagers were among Europe's greatest abusers of drugs and alcohol.

Now the majority of teens turn away from substance abuse and get a "natural high" by spending more time with their parents — quantity time — and engaging in a greater selection of activities in sports, music, dance and the arts.

They call it Youth Iceland and it was detailed by Deseret News investigative journalist Jesse Hyde, who also this week wrote a comprehensive piece headlined "The Park City story" about the change in a community that lost two 13-year-old boys to opioids. One of the lessons from the series is that helping youth find a passion is a way to battle the growing plague of opioid abuse and addiction. And it's understanding that not all youth can afford to pay for those would-be passions.

There are no guarantees, but from Iceland to Park City the ease of access to deadly synthetic drugs is changing the landscape. As Hyde pointed out:

"Kids can get on Reddit and get into different markets," he told me, noting the social news website contains forums to explain just about everything. "In the old days if kids wanted to rebel, they'd go and get a six-pack of beer. Now some kids try something and they're dead," he said.

In 2015, a landmark study discussed the benefits of quality time over quantity time and served as a relief of sorts for families with both parents working multiple jobs just to pay the bills and provide opportunities for their children. The focus showed quality was more important for younger kids and gained lots of traction for parents trying to navigate family life.

However, deep in the study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family and in a write-up in The Washington Post in March 2015, was this important finding:

"The one key instance (sociologist Melissa) Milkie and her co-authors found where the quantity of time parents spend does indeed matter is during adolescence: The more time a teen spends engaged with their mother, the fewer instances of delinquent behavior. And the more time teens spend with both their parents together in family time, such as during meals, the less likely they are to abuse drugs and alcohol and engage in other risky or illegal behavior."

Iceland's turnaround was based largely on the work of American psychology professor Harvey Milkman, who identified basically two ways adolescents confront stress.

As Hyde reported:

"In other words, those who liked to 'actively confront' stress were often seeking a rush, which they might find committing petty crimes like shoplifting, or through taking stimulants. Others were drawn to sedatives, like alcohol, to reduce anxiety."

Armed with that "aha" moment, he pushed for teens to spend the evenings at home and said there needs to be ways for teens to find a passion. Iceland embraced it, albeit with a big price tag in the country of only 330,000 people. But it's working.

In Park City, Treasure Mountain Junior High Principal Emily Sutherland has taken action in the wake of the deaths of Ryan Ainsworth and Grant Seaver by creating more after school programs using a grant from the county and a $250,000 donation from the CEO of Vail Ski Resort. They're seeking solutions specific to Park City.

"This isn't a Treasure Mountain problem or a district problem. This is a communitywide issue, and we're all coming together to do what we can to address it," Park City School District Superintendent Ember Conley said in Hyde's story.

They will assess the progress during the first year and work student-by-student to help kids and parents understand the risks of the new drugs and seek the healthy natural highs that are available.

Deseret News staff writer Lois Collins has spent the past five years chronicling just about everything there is to know in the research world on parenting and social relationships, particularly the changes in the digital age.

One important story showed the relationship of children and fathers, detailed in a 2012 piece titled "Everyday time with dad builds family bond."

The study was published in the journal Leisure Sciences.

"Rather than the occasional expensive family vacation alone, the satisfaction with regularly occurring home-based family activities such as eating dinner together, participating in hobbies and informal sports and yard activities together, watching television together, or playing board games together with the father present was the single strongest predictor of all aspects of family functioning, particularly from the youth perspective," said Ramon B. Zabriskie, professor in Brigham Young University's Marriott School.

What it means is when it comes to taking a young teen to soccer practice, the time in the car with mom or dad is probably more important than the time on the field with a coach.

The opioid epidemic is real. The Deseret News is mining every aspect of it this year to help individuals, families and communities fight back. Lives are at stake. We need all the solutions we can get.