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Teenage Boys

Sunday 3 November  2002 

Produced by Steve Skinner

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Program Transcript

Stephen Skinner: If there’s a group in society that scares the hell out of us, it’s probably teenage boys. We’re afraid of the harm that these often wild young people might bring to us, or to themselves. Look at the headlines they feature in -- it seems like nothing but gangs and violence and drugs and car crashes.

But those who work closely with teenage boys say that a lot of our fear of them, and for them, is overblown. They say there’s a lot more that governments, schools, local neighbourhoods, families and the media can do, to reduce our fear and to help make sure that teenage boys get through the difficult years.

Welcome to Background Briefing on ABC Radio National. I’m Stephen Skinner. And a warning, that some language later in the program may offend some listeners.


Stephen Skinner: A strange thing has been happening lately. Politicians on both sides of the political fence have been talking about alternatives to locking up young offenders. The new jargon includes terms like ‘youth justice conferencing’, ‘restitution to victims’, ‘mentoring’, and ‘early intervention’. There’s a focus on the causes of youth crime, rather than just on the effects.

So what’s going on here? Are politicians going soft on youth crime? Are they trying to save money? After all, it costs $120,000 a year to keep a teenager in a juvenile detention centre, but just a fraction of that to help them when they’re young. Or are politicians recognising that the solutions to juvenile delinquency aren’t as simple as mere punishment.

Mobile phone sounds

Ken Buttrum: Hello, it’s Ken Buttrum speaking, how are you? Is Michelle there?

Stephen Skinner: In his home office, Ken Buttrum still works tirelessly for boys in trouble. He’s been doing it for more than 30 years. He was head of the New South Wales Department of Juvenile Justice, and he’s got an Order of Australia for his work.

Ken Buttrum: … ‘The email was the agenda for tomorrow’s meeting, and it’s fairly important that somebody recovers that ….. Thank you very much. Bye, bye.’

Stephen Skinner: Ken Buttrum says teenage boys get more negative publicity than they deserve.

Ken Buttram
Ken Buttrum

Ken Buttrum: Well I think teenage boys are looking for a new identity as they grow up, they’re often moving away from their family, which had been important to them up until that stage. So you move away, you do a lot of things that are experimental, and oftentimes those experimental things, including the testing of law and order issues, just frightens the hell out of people. And for some reason or other, the press always picks up on these things, and they direct our attention to them and they focus on the sort of negative things rather than the positive things. I might tell you, there are even some politicians I think that often focus on the negative side of youth rather than the positive side of youth. So you can get the majority of young people doing the right thing, and nobody even takes any notice of them, but the moment that there is something experimental, or that tests limits, people get very uptight about it.

Stephen Skinner: The statistics show that in at least some states, the number of kids appearing before children’s courts is dropping. This doesn’t mean there’s less youth crime. Property crimes, for instance, are increasingly being dealt with in other ways, such as juvenile justice conferences, where young offenders face their victims. A big chunk of youth crime is committed by a small percentage of hardened repeat offenders. Ken Buttrum should know: until he recently retired, he was Chair of the Australasian Juvenile Justice Administrators.

"All this stuff about kids being madly out of control, alarmingly out of control, I think is wrong."

Ken Buttrum: All this stuff about kids being madly out of control, alarmingly out of control, I think is wrong, and the data backs me up. But what sort of happens is you get some outlandish crime occurring, the press picks it up, and it is outlandish crime, it’s really horrible; but the press picks it up and focuses on it, and if you get two or three incidents like that occurring in rapid succession, then people get their whole view of the teenage crime situation distorted. And we start to then have moral panics.

Stephen Skinner: This moral panic about teenage boys happens at the same time as we seem to turn a blind eye to what they’re being fed in movies, TV, advertising and computer games. Everywhere a boy turns he is force-fed speed, violence, sexuality and alcohol. No wonder they often follow through. Ken Buttrum says the key to stopping young people going off the rails doesn’t lie in punishment, it lies in a better home life.

Ken Buttrum: We don’t need more discipline in our community, we need better relationships in our community. We need better relationships in our families, and rather than call for stronger discipline, I’d call for better relationships. And we’ll only get better relationships when we spend quality time with kids. It’s an amazing thing to me that I’ve often asked the question of kids: If I could grant you three wishes, what would you wish for? Now at one stage, almost every young bloke that I asked that question to, said, ‘I wish I had a better relationship with my old man’, or some words to that effect. Now we’ve had a lot written about maternal deprivation in childhood and the fairly negative effects that that has on a kid’s growth. I think in teenage years, adolescent years, the lack of positive male relationships are very damaging in a kid’s emotional growth, as he looks to find out what real maleness is.

Stephen Skinner: It’s a sad fact that about 70% of the boys in juvenile jails come from dysfunctional families. Very often the father has left, and if he parents the boy at all, it’s likely to be poor parenting.

Home obviously has a crucial influence, and so does school. Juvenile delinquents invariably have also had an unhappy time at school, says Ken Buttrum.

Ken Buttrum: If you’re having problems in your home life, and you go along to school unhappy, then you’re not in a mood to learn, you’re not ready for learning, so the educational psychologists tell us. And kids start to drop out from school.

children singing from Pink Floyd’s “The Wall”

Stephen Skinner: You’re listening to Background Briefing on ABC Radio National.

Pink Floyd’s classic youth anthem, ‘The Wall’, a song of rebellion against the school system, still resonates today. Education researcher Malcolm Slade.

Malcolm Slade: Pink Floyd was sent to the top of the charts by a generation that got the shivers when they heard Pink Floyd’s song, ‘The Wall’, particularly when they heard that guy in the song say, ‘Stop still laddie, how can you have any pudding if you don’t eat your meat?’ This sort of stuff was very clear, the images were very clear to people 40, 50 years ago. The irony is that they’re still clear now. But the people they were clear to, 30, 40 years ago, are now the Establishment, they are now what they would have called the education Establishment. Where did it go wrong?

Stephen Skinner: Malcolm Slade, who works at the Flinders University Institute of International Education. His research became part of a federal parliamentary report into boys’ education released in the last few weeks. That report concluded that there’s no doubt boys -- speaking very generally -- are having a harder time at school than girls.

They drop out earlier; they don’t do as well in exams; they are slower to gain literacy; and they’re much more likely to be suspended from school for a time for bad behaviour. The report concluded something most parents already know, that boys are different to girls. They develop at a different rate; they respond better to visual cues; they are less verbal; their hearing isn’t as good; and they are more likely to muck up at what they see as poor teaching or irrelevant curriculum.

Malcolm Slade surveyed nearly 2,000 boys from 60 schools, and also talked to girls. He says girls are not as rebellious as boys.

Malcolm Slade: The girls were saying ‘We do well because we comply and conform’. They didn’t use those terms, their terms were ‘We’re better at sucking up. We can make the teachers do things the boys can’t’. They are very much more in control and looking at the long term. Year 12 is important to them. As far as they’re concerned, if they don’t get Year 12, they’re going to be a hairdresser or something like that, and there’s not much you can do. The boys see it differently. There are many other options as far as they’re concerned. The long goal may not be worth it, many of them are convinced it’s not. But the girls feel it’s that or nothing.

Stephen Skinner: So what do we do about the difference? The parliamentary report said the school system needs to listen a lot more closely to boys and to give more attention to their different learning styles. It made recommendations that will cost money, too, such as limiting primary school class sizes to 20; offering HECS-free teaching scholarships to attract more teachers; and paying teachers more.

Meanwhile a new inquiry is now under way into what’s called VET, or Vocational Educational Training. That’s where students are taught more practical subjects that can be directly used in a job. VET is taught in both schools and technical colleges, and it’s taken off in a big way in recent years. But it’s mostly for students in Years 11 and 12, and that leaves a lot of boys in Year 9 and 10 who hate sitting in front of a blackboard, who are at great risk of dropping out of school early.

Stephen Skinner: Sixteen-year-old Josie is a teenage boy straight out of central casting from Pink Floyd, the parliamentary report and Malcolm Slade’s research. He was expelled from his Sydney high school, and thought that meant he’d blown his goal of doing a trade. But the school careers counsellor got him into a short fitting and machining course at a local technical college, Chullora TAFE.

bike image

machine shop sounds

Rod Lalor: See mate, what you’ve got to watch there, you’re going a little bit quick for cast iron –

Stephen Skinner: This special course is for boys deemed to be at risk of dropping out of school before Year 10. Thanks to his teacher at TAFE, Rod Lalor, Josie scored an interview with a small pump manufacturing company, and got the job. He’s now in his second year of an apprenticeship. And without this kind of help, Josie says, he’d probably be sitting at home doing nothing.

Rod Lalor: … and I want you now to tell me how we’re going to do this.

Josie: Centre drill it?

Rod Lalor: Right, OK. What are you going to do about RPMs?

Josie: Yes, pretty quick on the centre drill, about a thousand …..

Stephen Skinner: Josie still goes to tech one day a week to hone his skills on the metalworking lathe with Rod Lalor.

Josie: … a pretty small diameter drill.

Stephen Skinner: Josie says TAFE is a lot different to school.

Josie: Here you’re treated a lot more like an adult. You can talk to the teachers and stuff, where in school you’re down there and they’re up there, you do what they say and that’s it. But here you’ve got more of a say, you talk about what you’re going to do. And you just get treated a lot more older, a lot more respect here than there is at school.

Stephen Skinner: Josie feels sorry for teachers having to deal with kids behaving very badly in school. Ironically, considering he was expelled from school, Josie says discipline has gone out the window, along with the cane.

Josie: Because you’ve got the choice to come here or not, so you’re not going to come here and waste your own time when you don’t really want to. You come here, and that’s where you excel because you want to be here, not because you have to be here. And when you want to be somewhere doing something you want to do, you’re going to do a lot better at it. And it’s put straight to you, straightaway: do good or see you later.

Stephen Skinner: So everyone’s got to knuckle down?

Josie: Yes, that’s it exactly. There’s a lot more discipline here as well. Like you’re told straight out because you know you’re going to get thrown out, where a lot of people use school as a bit of a ‘You can’t chuck me out, I’m not old enough’ kind of thing. That’s how it sort of works.

Stephen Skinner: And did you find that your reading and writing skills improved once you came here?

Josie: Yes, especially maths, doing all that trigonometry stuff. Because you’ve got to learn how to read the drawings -- you read the drawings wrong and your job’s gone really. Everything really improves, it gets you thinking, and you’re actually using your hands a lot more, so you’re not just sitting down just looking at a board all day, like you actually read it, you work it all out and then you go out and make it as well. So it puts it all together.

Stephen Skinner: Josie was lucky to get a place in the TAFE course, because despite its success, its funding situation is now under a cloud. And he was doubly lucky to get an apprenticeship. In the past 20 years, the full-time labour market for teenage boys and girls has collapsed. Apprenticeships are much harder to get. Technology has taken up a lot of the semi-skilled and labouring work that used to be done by strong young men. Long-term unemployment is one of the potentially dire consequences for young people who drop out of school without doing anything constructive in its place. They haven’t got the skills needed to match the new jobs that have become available in an increasingly high-tech and service-oriented economy.

So it’s important to stay in education, and this is a central goal of the Smith Family’s ‘Learning for Life’ program. Poor families receive a scholarship of a few hundred dollars per child, per year. It’s a modest sum, but it’s enough to pay for uniforms, shoes, books, haircuts and school excursions, so that the children don’t have to feel different or inferior to their classmates. There’s also a support worker for each child and family.

Rebeccah: You know what you want to work towards when you leave school though, don’t you?

Christopher: Yes.

Rebeccah: And have you had a chance to speak to your career adviser about what subjects might help you with that?

Christopher: I haven’t really talked about the subjects for getting into that yet, but ….

Stephen Skinner: Fifteen-year-old Christopher is a Star Wars and James Bond fan, and wants to be a Hollywood movie director. He’s chatting with his support worker, Rebeccah.

Christopher: A while ago I went and saw my careers adviser because there is a Year 11 course you can do at Granville Tech. What that actually is, is instead of doing an elective at my high school, I would go to Granville Tech and do a television course for like one day a week.

Rebeccah: Oh, OK, sounds exciting.

Christopher: Yes.

Rebeccah: Sounds like you’d really enjoy that.

Christopher: Yes, it’d be good.

Stephen Skinner: Christopher and his three siblings are cared for by his Mum alone, and she wouldn’t have been able to afford all the school basics if not for the ‘Learning for Life’ program.

Christopher says there’s also a lot of pressure on kids to have the latest gear such as discmans, let alone the modern-day necessities such as a home computer and internet access.

Christopher: Well I think nowadays the technology that’s available to people means that if you don’t have a lot of money and you can’t afford to get the newest thing, you can be seen as being not cool.

Stephen Skinner: What sort of things are you thinking about, that there’s pressure to buy now?

Christopher: Well, things like the mobile phones and the big stereo systems and stuff like that, that everyone who’s anybody seems to have.

Stephen Skinner: At school, you mean?

Christopher: Well a lot of people at school, they bring in things like MP3 players and discmans to school, and like listening to them in class and things like that. And they’re the ones that are seen as being cool.

Stephen Skinner: So that’s pressure on parents, to be able to supply the same things?

Christopher: Yes, and also pressure on kids to be able to get enough money to buy these things for themselves.

Stephen Skinner: Fifteen-year-old Christopher. He’s determined to complete Year 12.

A decade ago, less than half the teenagers entering Year 8 at Salisbury High School in Adelaide finished Year 12. Absenteeism was rife, and so was unemployment amongst the early school leavers.

But things have turned around dramatically. From her office at Salisbury High School, Principal Helen Paphitis rattles off the positive stats.

Helen Paphitis: Our statistics show from the students that leave school, apart from a small percentage where we don’t know where they are, we have about 30% that go on to university, about 40% go to TAFE for further training, and the others go on to employment. So we track them down to see where they are ….Our aim at Salisbury High School is to see every student successfully placed in either higher education, further education or employment or training. So long as they safely land somewhere when they leave here, we’re very happy that we feel that we’ve achieved our job.

Stephen Skinner: And there’s a lot more safe landings now than a decade ago, say?

Helen Paphitis: Absolutely.

Stephen Skinner: How has Salisbury High pulled off this minor miracle? For one thing, the teachers are in it for the long haul. Ms Paphitis herself has taught at the school since 1983. Students entering Year 7 are put into groups of 15, each with its own so-called ‘care teacher’. A care teacher follows the students all the way through high school, helping them with problems and acting as a go-between between home and school.

Ms Paphitis says a major factor in the school’s success is making the curriculum more relevant to both the students and potential employers.

Helen Paphitis: We found that employers were saying that the young people leaving the school didn’t have the skills for employment, so we had to really think about what were we offering our students. The traditional curriculum that was being offered wasn’t suitable. The fact that kids were leaving school meant that it wasn’t relevant, and so we had to really revamp what we were offering. And one of the ways that we tried to make the curriculum more relevant was for example, in technology. We trained our staff in Cisco, and then we introduced certificate courses in technologies. We have now, for the last four years, been running Certificate Four information technology. This particular course makes the young people, once they come out of it, they are employable, they get certification from Cisco, They also get Microsoft certification. It’s a nationally-accredited course that actually leads directly to university for those who want to do it, or directly to employment. So that’s the technology course.

Stephen Skinner: And they have been getting jobs in Adelaide, using that qualification?

Helen Paphitis: Absolutely. That’s in that area. In hospitality we’ve introduced a certificate course to Level 2 in hospitality. We offer tourism, we offer construction technology. Construction for boys particularly, working with the building associations, with the Housing Trust and because it’s a very hands-on project, kids are working with the Housing Trust to renovate houses in the neighbourhood, getting hands-on skills and basically learning about the industry on the job.

Stephen Skinner: Salisbury High has also recognised the special needs of boys.

Helen Paphitis: We’ve set up project teams and one of them is the boys education project team, which is made up of interested teachers. They then work on an action plan and they set up their own key outcomes which is to basically increase teachers’ awareness of the educational needs of boys, and then they work with them to develop the specific learning strategies, talk about the different types of methodologies, about much more hands-on, practical. Boys need that, technical. And then they’re in the process of collecting and analysing the data on the achievement. And it’s about teaching the boys explicitly, how to organise themselves, high order thinking skills, positive reinforcement, because boys need that. And there’s a lot of affirmative action programs for boys that we are doing, like getting boys to run assemblies, and having a boys’ magazine, lots of things like that.

Stephen Skinner: Senator Amanda Vanstone is the Federal Minister for Family and Community Services. She says most teenage boys, given the chance, are a credit to society.

"I get mad when I see things in the paper about young people being criminals, you know young people are more likely to be assaulted than they are to do the assaulting."

Amanda Vanstone: I think they’re faring very well, they’re doing a great job, we can be really proud of them. I get mad when I see things in the paper about young people being criminals, you know young people are more likely to be assaulted than they are to do the assaulting, and I just wish the media would give young Australians a better go, and really publicise what a great job they’re doing. Some are having difficulties, sure, but by and large we can be really proud of young Australians.

Stephen Skinner: Most families see their boys through the tumultuous years of adolescence. But if family life is chaotic and unhappy, or there is no male role model or the role model is abusive, then a boy is at greater risk of getting into trouble. Most boys who do get into trouble with the law never repeat it. But for too many it becomes a self-destructive spiral.

The Centre for Adolescent Health at Melbourne Children’s Hospital tracked all of the two and a half thousand teenage boys who had been in Victoria’s juvenile jails during the 1990s. The British Medical Journal is publishing the results of the survey, which found that five percent of these young men, that’s 1 in 20 of them, were dead within five years of leaving jail. This death rate is 40 times more than for teenage boys as a whole. Most of the young people died from drug overdoses, suicide, or accidents such as car crashes.

Director of the Centre for Adolescent Health is Professor George Patton. He says most teenage boys are doing well, because they are well connected to their families and schools. But he says a significant minority of teenage boys are doing badly. He says the study shows that life for them is actually getting worse.

George Patton: Well I think it says something about the status, not only of young offenders but some of these groups who are marginalised within the Australian society. We looked at young offenders, but I think if we looked at other groups, young homeless people, I think if we looked at the unemployed, kids who are out of school, kids who’ve been in protective care, we probably would have found high mortality rates, high death rates in those groups as well. So what I think it tells us is something about how young people at the margins within our society are travelling, and the indications are that they’re not travelling well.

Just expanding on that, I think we’ve looked at life’s chances in one sense, the extent to which these kids are surviving into adulthood, and we’re finding that large numbers are not. But I think in many other respects, whether one’s looking at health, whether one’s looking at education, whether one’s looking at employment chances, these groups are not doing well. If for example, we look at the health profile of this group, we’re finding high rates of substance use and abuse and dependence, we’re finding high rates of mental disorder, we’re finding very high rates of blood-borne diseases, such as Hepatitis C. These are going to have a lasting effect, not only on the health of these groups but also their capacity to function as effective members of our community.

Stephen Skinner: So-called ‘early intervention’ programs are now recognised as one of the best and most cost-effective ways of governments to help young boys. It’s accepted that one dollar spent helping a young family or teenager in trouble saves up to seven dollars down the track in the cost of the justice system, policing, jails and health services when the boys grow up.
Amanda Vanstone: The number of surveys predominantly from the United States, where they’ve got more longitudinal data than we have, look they show varying things, but you’re saving somewhere between four and seven dollars for every dollar you spend, provided you spend it early enough. Now that doesn’t just mean on babies and young children. If someone’s got an alcohol problem and they’re developing it as a teenager, you can get in early then. Early isn’t an indicator of the time of their life, it’s an indicator of the time of a problem developing that you’ve got to get in.

Stephen Skinner: The Federal Government has started a four-year, $240-million program called ‘Stronger Families and Communities’. A big chunk of it involves early intervention, and within that, one of the key strategies is mentoring for troubled youth.

basketball sounds

Radio National’s Background Briefing visited a mentoring project recommended by the Federal Department of Family and Community Services. It’s called ‘Great Mates’, and it’s run by former professional American basketballers who used to play for Australian teams and have now settled in Australia.

Here a group of mostly 12 and 13 year olds are playing their first competition game of basketball in an indoor stadium. Their coach and mentor is Delmas Green.

Delmas Green: …. basketball, and be aggressive. I think we’re throwing nervous passes out there right now, right?

Stephen Skinner: The kids lost the game but they certainly had a go, and it was a good first effort. They won the following week. Great Mates is the brainchild of former Wollongong, Newcastle and Adelaide players, Butch Hays.

Butch Hays: Yes, take two shots. Nice job

Stephen Skinner: The Great Mates program operates in New South Wales, Queensland and Western Australia and provides supervised accommodation and education programs as well as mentoring and sporting activities.

One boy who’s taken part in the program is held up as a stand-out example of what can be achieved. We can’t give his name, but in his early teens he’d been dabbling in petty crime. He’s now played several games of first grade in the National Rugby League competition. Butch Hays himself came from the tough south central area of Los Angeles. He says the young footballer reminds him of himself.

Butch Hays: It’s great to see the other kids that went through that mentoring program, that are achieving academically, but it’s so great to see this young person achieve through sport, because that is kind of the vehicle that lifted me out of my condition, my environment. So it’s great to see that sport is still there, and it’s something that all kids can do, it’s healthy. I mean there are a lot of benefits to participating in sporting programs, and having mentors, because even if he hadn’t achieved first-grade football, he was staying off the street, he was being positive, he didn’t have time for those bad influences. So it’s great to see.

bike image

Stephen Skinner: Much of the Government’s ‘Stronger Families and Communities’ program involves support for young families having problems. In recent years state governments too have slowly funded these sorts of early intervention programs, though spending is still small compared with budgets for police, jails and health services.

The ‘Triple P’ parenting program, run by Professor Matt Sanders from the University of Queensland, is said to be one of the best. Professor Sanders says governments are moving in the right direction on family support, but better evaluations are needed to make sure some of the programs don’t do more harm than good, and this is hampered by the shortage of funding.

Matt Sanders: It is just simply not enough and at the level that it needs to be to make enough of a difference to this problem at a population level where we’re going to see a significant reduction in behavioural, emotional and other major mental health problems in our young people.

Stephen Skinner: So you’re basically saying that even though governments are spending a lot more than they did -- sometimes it was nothing, in early intervention -- it’s still nowhere near enough?

Matt Sanders: Definitely, that’s the way I view it. While the trends are in the right direction, the rhetoric is good, there’s some commitment to doing it, we cannot become complacent about this, feeling as though we have programs and strategies that are accessible easily to people at low cost, but they’re high quality. It’s simply that the majority of people still within the Australian context, do not access parenting support. The vast majority of people do no parent education whatsoever, and the ones who are most likely to come forward are the ones who are probably more advantaged. So we really need to work on this idea of making parenting normative, to make it a rite of passage, to make it something that’s completely acceptable to do. But to advocate for that strongly, we need to be supporting good quality evidence-based programs.

Stephen Skinner: Adolescence is a hard time for boys. Their hormones have kicked in and can cause powerful feelings, turmoil and anxiety. They are moving out into the world and have to prove themselves as men. In so-called ‘primitive’ societies they have rites of passage for just this period, when boys might have to go through some dangerous or painful experience to move out of childhood into adulthood. In our society we don’t provide that, so some boys try to find it for themselves in ways we wish they didn’t -- in cars, drink, or wild risky behaviour, all without the maturity to know when to stop. The media -- from movies to computer games, sitcoms and ads -- glamorises fast cars, alcohol, risk-taking, and they further build up steam-cooker pressure on adolescents.

Parents are usually more worried about illegal drugs than alcohol, yet for the majority of boys, alcohol is by far the bigger danger. Young drinkers kill themselves and others by drinking and driving, getting run over, getting into fights or even poisoning themselves by drinking too much, too quickly. Teenage binge drinking is on the increase. And to the consternation of many, binge drinking is occasionally shown as great fun on top-rating TV shows that many teenagers watch, like Big Brother on the Ten Network.

And a warning to listeners, the audio coming up contains language that may offend some people.

The segment in question went to air last year, in the 9.30 ‘Uncut’ version of the show, which was a favourite with teenage boys. This scene involves a drinking game called ‘I Have Never’, and sculling. The images show young people enjoying themselves immensely as they swig their drinks.

Young Man: I’ve never had sex with two girls at once … you’re on.

Young Woman: What, and you drink if you have?

Young Man: Yes.

Young Woman: Oh shit.

Host Gretel Killeen: Now remember, the game is called ‘I Have Never’ so you drink if you have.

Young Man: I have never been in a threesome when there are two males and one female ….. if it’s true you’ve got to drink ….. where’s the beer!

Everyone talking loudly at once.

Young Man: So who drank?

Stephen Skinner: The trend towards more and earlier binge drinking worries Federal Parliamentary Secretary for Health, Trish Worth, speaking here on the phone.

"There’s sexual activity which wouldn’t have taken place if they hadn’t perhaps had so much to drink."

Trish Worth: We know for instance that from the tracking studies that the National Alcohol Campaign has undertaken that nearly 12 percent of females and 10 percent of males aged between 14 and 19 were drinking at least once a week at levels that put themselves in danger of serious harm and violence and injury while intoxicated. And of course there’s unwanted sexual advances, there’s sexual activity which wouldn’t have taken place if they hadn’t perhaps had so much to drink, and there’s the consequence of that with sexually transmitted diseases or unwanted pregnancies. And I think these are some of the messages that young people do need to get as well.

Stephen Skinner: Trish Worth is concerned that a lot of the messages young people are getting from advertisements for alcohol, are the wrong ones.

The system for regulating alcohol advertising is a complex one, with two different voluntary codes running together. One is the general code of ethics for all advertisers, which focuses on issues of taste and decency. There’s also a code just for alcohol ads, which is more specific. It’s called the Alcohol Beverages Advertising Code, or ABAC. This is what one clause of the code says:

Alcohol advertising must not depict the consumption or presence of alcohol beverages as a cause for, or contributing to, the achievement of personal, business, social, sporting, sexual or other success.

Stephen Skinner: An example of the kind of advertisement that is raising questions is an ad for Bundaberg Rum, which was widely played on the Nine Network during the recent Rugby League finals series. Hundreds of thousands of boys would have been watching the games, and the ads, on TV. The ad was run repeatedly during each game after 8.30 at night. Bundaberg Rum is now owned by the British-based Diageo corporation, the biggest alcohol company in the world. Diageo also owns Bailey’s and Guinness.

In the Bundaberg ad a group of young men are sitting at a table in a bar drinking their Bundy rums. The Bundaberg Rum polar bear has its head through a hole in the wall above them, making it look like a trophy. A group of young women then walk in, so the bear then moves to a hole in the wall above the girls’ table, so he can hear what they’re saying. The women talk about their idea of a good night out with young men. One had been taken out to the football. Another wishes that someone would take her to the opera and buy her flowers. The third young woman, dressed in blue, says she’d prefer a few drinks followed by a one-night stand

The Bundaberg bear returns to the young men and points them to this young woman, because she wants a few drinks followed by a one-night stand. Here’s the ad.

Bundaberg Bear: Hey: 10 o’clock.

Young Woman #1: And then he took me to the football.

Young Woman #2: I wish they’d just take us to the opera and buy us flowers.

bundaberg commercial
Images from the Bundaberg rum ad

Young Woman #3: Me, I’d rather a few drinks and a good one-night stand.

Bear: The one in the blue.

bundaberg commercial

Young Man: Hey, footy’s on.

television football match sounds

Stephen Skinner: Federal Parliamentary Secretary for Health, Trish Worth, is less than impressed.

Trish Worth: That was an ad that I did see, I mean it was a typical sort of scene that was being tapped into, where you might have some young girls drinking together and some young lads drinking together and of course young lads and young girls are going to be quite interested in each other. And I thought the way it sort of emphasised the sexuality, or the sexual message from one of the girls, and the interest that the boys showed in that, was the wrong message for young people.

Stephen Skinner: So you believe it does contravene that particular clause in the ABAC code where you’re now supposed to equate alcohol consumption with sexual success?

Trish Worth: Well I can certainly see that some people would argue that. I agree that all these issues and judgements are very subjective and if there’s going to be an expert committee looking at this, I’d rather not be making pronouncements before they report to me, but I’ve no doubt that that’s one of the ads that they’d be looking at.

Stephen Skinner: Radio National’s Background Briefing spoke with two of the three independent media experts who vet ads to make sure they comply with the Alcohol Beverages Advertising Code. It’s mostly only one member of the panel at a time who rules on each ad, not all three. The adjudicator who passed the Bundaberg Rum Bear ad said he didn’t think it linked drinking with sexual success, because in the end the young men decide the football was even more interesting than the glamorous girl who wants a one-night stand. But another adjudicator told Background Briefing that she would not have passed the ad.

Robert Koltai is Honorary Chairman of the Advertising Standards Bureau. The Bureau is the first port of call for complaints relating to both sets of codes. Mr Koltai points out that the panels used to judge alcohol advertising and complaints about them, are made up of people who are independent of the advertising and liquor industries. He personally has no problem with the Bundaberg Bear ad.

"In the context in which is used in this advertisement, there is a degree of self-evident humour, and I think most Australians have got a good sense of humour."

Robert Koltai: I think that if you look at that in the context of what the Australian community sees in terms of program content, I don’t think that particular reference to a one-night stand is at all out of context with what regularly appears in television sitcoms, movies, magazines. And also in the context in which is used in this advertisement, there is a degree of self-evident humour, and I think most Australians have got a good sense of humour.

Stephen Skinner: Robert Koltai can’t understand the fuss about alcohol advertising. Boys are subject to a wide range of influences from all parts of the media, not just advertising, and he says the wider general community is obviously not concerned.

Robert Koltai: To put it in context, if you look at last year, of the total number of complaints referred to the Advertising Standards Board, complaints about alcohol advertising only amounted to about two-and-a-half percent of complaints. Now if you compare that, for example, with other categories such as food, which was 22 percent, or clothing , which was seven-and-a-half percent, it puts into perspective that the community at large doesn’t have strong concerns about alcohol advertising. That would suggest that the alcohol code is working.

Stephen Skinner: On this wider front, Trish Worth says it’s frustrating that at the same time as governments are running campaigns warning teenagers and parents of the dangers of drinking too much, some alcohol advertisers are actually targeting under-age drinkers.

Trish Worth: It’s certainly very ironic. We are putting a lot of effort into those ‘Re-thinking Drinking’ ads, and also we are about to involve some pop music groups, promoting to young people the dangers of unwise drinking. We really are trying hard and taking it seriously. Then of course they can see one of those, and then a few minutes later (they) might see an ad where alcohol is seen to be very glamorous. Now some people in the alcohol industry are obviously more responsible than others. My chief concern is that it has been marketed to young people, really below the age of 18, and is seen to be glamorous. It’s a time when they’re going through adolescence, when they’ve got lots of other things on their mind, they’re perhaps not going to make the wise decisions that they would if they were a bit older and more experienced, and it is the targeting of that group that I am particularly concerned about.

Stephen Skinner: By mainstream ads for alcohol on television.

Trish Worth: Yes, I am. John Thwaites, the Victorian (Health) Minister raised this issue at the Ministerial Council on Drugs that was held in Darwin in July, and all the Ministers there were very concerned about what he had to present, and in fact as a result of that, we’ve asked an expert committee, the Intergovernmental Committee on Drugs, to look into this type of advertising, and the effectiveness of the controls that are on it.

Stephen Skinner: One study has already concluded that the controls on alcohol advertising are not effective.

A survey of eight independent Australian marketing academics is published in the current issue of the international Journal of Public Affairs. Each of the marketing experts was shown nine alcohol ads about which there had been official complaints. Most of them said they would not have passed seven of the nine ads, because in their opinion the ads breached one or both of the voluntary codes. Yet the ads all got through the system.

Stephen Skinner: Danger, thrills, spills, and rebellion are all part of being a boy growing into manhood. In their early teens, many boys already have a fascination for cars. If they’re not old enough to drive themselves just yet, they’re keen to be part of a group in which someone does, and nothing is more fun than hooning around.

At its best, this is just boys with hormones racing, letting off some steam and testing themselves, maybe even learning some skills. At its worst, combined with alcohol and heavily influenced by the desire for speed, glamour and power, it’s deadly. About 200 teenage drivers alone have been killed in the past two years. And that toll doesn’t include their passengers or other people, or serious injuries.

The Australian Automobile Association is the national body for state motoring clubs such as the NRMA and RACV. It’s been concerned for a long time that not only is dangerous driving glamorised in movies, but that many car ads on Australian TV are irresponsible too. The Association’s Chief Executive is Lauchlan McIntosh.

Lauchlan McIntosh: The Advertising Standards Bureau has tended to take perhaps in my view, a standoff view in this. I suspect that’s their charter, but they’ve not been all that pro-active, and I think they’ve tended to wait for very specific complaints before they’ve been prepared to act or to look around and see what might be done.

Stephen Skinner: During the National Rugby League series, an ad for the latest Holden ute was run repeatedly. It features a young man in the drought-stricken outback doing donuts in the car to whip up stormclouds which then bring rain.

holden commercial


holden commercial
Images from the Holden ad

Come December, this ad will probably not be allowed to go to air. A special voluntary code for car advertisers will come into effect then, after public and political concern about so-called ‘fast car’ ads. Under the new code, ads will not be allowed to show reckless driving which would be illegal if it was done on a public road. The Automobile Association was one of the groups which lobbied hard for the code.

"We were seeing an increasing interest by the advertisers in targeting that young male group, encouraging them to be risk-takers."

Lauchlan McIntosh: Our view was that young males are pretty impressionable and most of the speed issues with advertising were aimed clearly at young males, and I don’t think we saw a young female in any of the cars, for instance, or driving any of the cars. So there was an attempt by the advertisers to pitch the advertisements directly to young males, and to suggest to them that there were techniques you could do with your car that were exciting and risk-taking, and we know that when people are encouraged to be risk-takers over and above their capabilities, they’re likely to come to some sort of harm. So I think there’s a lot of concern that some of the ads were about fantasies, some of the ads were about just straight humour, but equally I think when you looked at the increasing number of them, we were seeing an increasing interest by the advertisers in targeting that young male group, encouraging them to be risk-takers, and encouraging them to do things which they probably didn’t have the skill to do.

teenagers on skateboards

Stephen Skinner: Juvenile Justice expert Ken Buttrum, who’s been working with juvenile offenders for more than 30 years, says in all that time he’s only struck a handful of teenagers who are devoid of any conscience. He says most boys, even amongst those who get into trouble, don’t mean to harm anyone and don’t understand how risky their behaviour is. They need help to channel all that boundless energy and anxiety into constructive things.

bike image

Ken Buttrum: The majority of young guys are really good kids. I’m not a believer that every one of them should be avoided as you walk down the street, I think it’s crazy. In every generation we’ve had Jonahs who think everything’s bad, and that life’s terrible and it’s getting worse. I’m not one of those, but I think we should look around at the society in which we live and say, OK, what are some of the problems that some -- not all -- that some of these kids have? What are the causes of them? And let’s deal with those and bring those to people’s awareness. We’ve got to try and work out ways all the time of sure, helping people to face up to responsibilities for their own behaviour, but at the same time, hold out some hope to them, that there is something better for them in the future.

Stephen Skinner: Background Briefing’s Co-ordinating Producer is Linda McGinnis; Technical Operator, John Jacobs; Research, Paul Bolger. Our Executive Producer is Kirsten Garrett. I’m Stephen Skinner and you’re listening to ABC Radio National.

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