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Dublin: 4 °C Tuesday 12 November, 2019

Column: Young people don’t need to be patronised by safe drinking campaigns

Student filmmaker Nicky O’Donnell writes about how he contributed to a video about responsible drinking aimed at young people – without talking down to them.

Nicky O'Donnell

LIKE MANY PEOPLE in Ireland these days I’m coming through the college system for the second time. Returning to college gave me an opportunity, not just to improve my qualifications and my career prospects, but to correct some of the mistakes I made previously that lead to me missing out on my degree. I’d be lying if I said that a love of socialising—and the alcohol consumption that went with it—wasn’t a factor in failing the first time around.

These days I still enjoy a drink, but my nights out are no longer like the before-and-after of a bad Harlem Shake video. There have still been one or two morning lectures that I’ve shown up to a little the worse for wear from the night before, but the days of drinking so much that I might fall over, black out or throw up are thankfully long, long gone.

Understanding your limits

Unfortunately for some of my friends, both younger and older, they are still taking alcohol consumption to extremes. In some cases, they may not be drinking what some would consider too much. It’s just too much for them. It might even be just a few pints, but it’s enough to send them over the edge; turning a night to remember into one to remember for all the wrong reasons. Lost wallets and phones, physical injuries and regrettable sexual encounters are just some of the ‘occupational hazards’ that go with a heavy night of drinking for a typical student.

Helping young people understand their limits and avoid these things from happening is something that, as a society, we need to look at much more seriously. However, the problem is trying to get that message across without young people feeling like they’re being schooled. The other problem, of course, is how poorly the State currently engages with young people and tackles the problems they face head on. It’s no wonder they might feel an increased need for escapism in the current climate of high unemployment and the financial pressures their families are coming under. In my home town of Limerick, for example, two thirds of young men are jobless. Is it any wonder that in those circumstances, many would be driven to drink?

When the film competition came around, I saw it as an opportunity to make something intelligent and fun that didn’t beat the audience over the head with the message. Some students here in the IT Tralee Creative Media Department with a common interest in film-making had formed a society. I proposed that we enter the competition.  The age range of the students involved was from 19 to 30+ (ahem). It’s appropriate to mention the age range when you consider that the Royal College of Physicians in Ireland recently reported a 247% increase in alcoholic liver disease among 15-34 year olds between 1995 and 2007.

Message need to be grounded in reality to get through

The brief we were given was simply that the film should cover the theme of ‘pacing our drinking’. I looked at a lot of previous efforts, particularly those in the UK, and found that they went way over the top in trying to play on people’s fears. The scenarios were often completely unrealistic. One involved someone climbing five floors of scaffolding to retrieve a balloon to impress a group of girls, then falling to his death. I kept thinking, “young people don’t behave like that. They’re not bloody stupid!” While it’s certainly true that too much alcohol makes you feel invincible when you’re at your most vulnerable, a film on that topic needs to be grounded in reality, not fantasy, in order to gain the respect of a young audience.

Make no mistake about it. Creating a media campaign that might successfully influence the habits of the public is a remarkably difficult task, even more so when it involves young people and alcohol. Part of the problem though, is that young people aren’t given enough credit for how intelligent they are. What they usually lack when it comes to alcohol consumption is simply the benefit of experience, nothing more.

The scenario for our film was a group of young people out for a run. One of them wants to run faster than the others and takes off at an unsustainable pace. Eventually he gets very tired, dizzy and ill. He keels over, gets sick and can’t continue. He ends up sitting on the pavement with his head in his hands. We then cut to the same character in a bar, in a similar condition and the camera zooms out to reveal many empty glasses on the table. The message is obvious and simple. It’s a realistic scenario that young people are familiar with and many have been in. In short, it doesn’t insult the intelligence of the audience. There is no ‘tagline’. If we’d needed one then the film would have failed.

Nicky O’Donnell is a student at IT Tralee and, along with four team-mates, produced the winning film in this year’s student film competition. Now in its sixth year, challenges students to creatively explore Irish people’s relationship to drinking. The competition is run by the alcohol social responsibility organisation,

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Nicky O'Donnell

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