By Press Office 29 July 2016

A groundbreaking initiative involving a university and six Edinburgh secondary school could transform Scotland’s drinking culture.

A new report, which outlines the success of the AlcoLoLs project, demonstrates how the initiative is helping to change young people’s attitudes to the country’s notorious teenage drinking culture.

A team of academics from Queen Margaret University’s Centre for Dialogue has published the report which shows the impact the project is having in helping some 3,000 Edinburgh teenagers make safer decisions about alcohol and drinking. The intervention, first conceived  with pupils from Portobello High School in 2012, who called themselves ‘The AlcoLOLs’, has since been developed with pupils from another five Edinburgh high schools.

The Queen Margaret University (QMU) research team have used an approach which uses peer to peer ‘dialogue’ to enable teenagers to talk together in school, without adults in the room. The initiative helps to break down barriers  by creating opportunities for students to be more truthful in their communication.  As Emma Wood explained: “Young people have told us that they rarely say  what they actually feel about drinking,  they say what they think they need to need to say to fit in.  The AlcoLOLs approach helps them say what they really think.”

The AlcoLoL’s approach is based on evidence which suggests that young people see drinking as ‘popular’ behaviour, and will talk about getting drunk as normal or funny. In contrast, non-drinkers avoid talking about not drinking or not enjoying drunkenness for fear of not ‘fitting in’, (Percy et al, 2011). This can mean that teenagers think their peers drink more than they actually do, and that binge drinking and drunkenness are admired.

Researchers Emma Wood and Magda Pieczka from the QMU’s Centre for Dialogue teach groups of teenagers how to recognise potential problems by looking at the way they communicate about alcohol and the Scottish drinking culture.  They then create a ‘safe space’ for the teenagers, where they can talk openly without fear of being judged or laughed at, and can hear a whole range of views and opinions from each other and from experts in the field.  The teenagers then go on to duplicate this experience for their peers at school, aiming to include every S2 and S4 pupil in two dialogue groups each year which they facilitate without adult intervention.

The report ‘AlcoLoLs – Rethinking Drinking’ shows that the approach is well received by young people. Pupils view it as the most useful source of alcohol related information out of seven different sources considered. Fifty percent of  S2s feel it helped them learn how to deal with alcohol and manage the pressure to drink.

At Portobello High School, where the approach has been running longest, around 50% said it enabled them to talk and / or think about alcohol in new ways.

Emma Wood explained : “By encouraging other teenagers to talk about things in a different way, the AlcoLOLs are able to help young people question certain behaviours and develop a confidence to deal with issues. The process of dialogue encourages them to reflect on their own behaviour and thoughts as well as others.  They almost step outside themselves and look critically at what happens around them. The impact can be profound.”

One pupil who took part in an AlcoLOLs session said: “I honestly assumed that everyone drank from such a young age. I think that’s what everyone thinks and that’s probably the main reason that people do drink . You think everyone else’s doing it so you have to do it…”

The impact of the AlcoLoLs work has resulted in positive and changed behaviour within the wider community.  The East Edinburgh Community Alcohol Partnership believes the project has played a part in the amount of alcohol seized by police officers in the Portobello High School catchment decreasing from an average of 8-12 litres most weekends in 2012 to an average of 1 -3 litres in 2014/5. 

The community police officer at the school notes that the project’s aim of getting teenagers to discuss drinking with parents could be influential. PC Verity Ferry said: “There’s not as much street drinking, they seem to be doing it in a house where there’s a certain degree of protection instead of getting leathered in Rosefield Park which used to happen every single weekend.”  

The former head teacher of the school, Peigi Macarthur  also noticed a big difference stating:

“There were fewer instances of issues impacting on the school which related to alcohol-fuelled situations at weekends and the resultant difficulties with relationships, health and safety.”

Dr Magda Pieczka led the project with Emma Wood. Dr Pieczka said: “We have worked in six high schools in Edinburgh for three years. It became clear that young people embraced this opportunity to take control of their understanding of the issue of alcohol with great enthusiasm and maturity. Many of our AlcoLOLs felt changed by their dialogic journey and that motivates them to help others. There was a strong feeling of altruism and responsibility to their peers.”

Professor Alan Gilloran, Deputy Principal at QMU, said: “17.5% of all deaths in the 16–24 age group in Scotland are estimated to be caused by attributable alcohol conditions. Our alcohol culture is a major issue for our health, safety, economy and our country’s reputation. With the correct funding in place, the AlcoLoLs project has the potential to be rolled out to other areas of Scotland to help tackle Scotland’s drinking culture and improve health outcomes for future generations.”

Dr Alastair MacGilchrist, Consultant Hepatologist & Gastroenterologist at the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh, is a supporter of the AlcoLoLs project, He said: “This is outstanding work which I would like to see continued and extended to other schools to benefit a wider group of youngsters.”

Christine Scullion, Head of Innovation and Learning at The Robertson Trust, said: “It has been interesting to see the benefits of peer-to-peer dialogue among young people and I am encouraged that this approach has shown signs of success in changing attitudes.

“Improving outcomes for young people is a priority of The Robertson Trust and the success of AlcoLOLs has provided some significant learning which will help to build a stronger evidence base in this area.”

Notes to Editor

A groundbreaking initiative involving a university and six Edinburgh secondary school could transform Scotland’s drinking culture. A new report, which outlines the success of the AlcoLoLs project, demonstrates how the initiative is helping to change young people’s attitudes to the country’s notorious teenage drinking culture.

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