All over the world, chemical products such as stimulants, but also beauty products, (energy) drinks, vitamins and food supplements have become an integral part of young people's daily lives. Many of these products can be potentially harmful. The University of Amsterdam studied why young people use these products and how they deal with the risks. There appears to be a surprisingly high level of joint self-regulation and a worryingly strong link with work objectives.
Research into the use of chemical substances among young people usually focuses on drugs and how to regulate them. The five-year ethnographic research project Chemical Youth chose a different approach. ‘Drugs are not the only chemical substances that young people use', explains the coordinator Anita Hardon, professor of Medical Anthropology at the University of Amsterdam. ‘The daily lives of young people are flooded with chemicals to boost pleasure levels, emotions, sexual performance, appearance and health. We examined what all these pills, drinks, sprays, powders and lotions do for young people and how they deal with the risks, from the perspective of the young people themselves.’
They found that young people not only use chemical substances to enhance their appearance and pleasure, but also to perform at their best in an uncertain labour market. It furthermore appeared that young people carefully weigh up the advantages and disadvantages of chemical products with each other via international online platforms.
From the beginning of 2013 to the end of 2018, Hardon and her team of nearly thirty young researchers delved into the everyday lives of young people in ten cities all over the world. Using this form of team-based science that brought together different disciplines, they wished to examine the everyday practice in which young people use chemical substances. ‘So how and why do they do this, from early morning until late at night and from top to toe?’, explains Hardon.
The team went to urban centres that attract young people like magnets in their desire to study, work and build their future there. The cities included Amsterdam, Paris, Makassar and Yogyakarta (Indonesia), Cagayan de Oro and Puerto Princesa (Philippines) and Brooklyn (US). These are also inner cities in which young people can obtain an astonishing range of chemical substances in drugstores, supermarkets, pharmacies and online stores, and where they are targeted by advertising for these substances through their Instagram and Facebook accounts, TV and radio, and posters at local shops.
Hardon and her team identified three main goals that young people wish to achieve through the use of chemical substances: a form of well-being, experimenting with gender and sexual identities, and enhancing career opportunities and working capacity.
For example, young people used products to feel attractive, happy and healthy; to create lean and muscular bodies; to grow breasts or reduce inhibition; to improve sexual experiences and prevent unwanted pregnancies. But they also used products to help them feel confident in an uncertain labour market, to be creative and focused with tremendous stamina and to bring their appearance into line with that demanded by the labour market.
‘I hadn't expected that’, says Hardon, ‘to find such a strong link with work objectives. But of course, it's easy to explain. We have the most highly educated young generation ever, and at the same time a high level of job insecurity. This leads to great pressure on young people to distinguish themselves from others and to constantly perform at the peak of their abilities.’
How do young people deal with the risks associated with the use of chemical substances? There was a great deal of self-regulation in which tests, sharing and monitoring were carried out together with others. ‘Young people conduct experiments together in which they adjust dosages, mix substances and seek out substitutes to balance the benefits and disadvantages’, explains Hardon.
Contacts across generations and professional and spatial divisions played an important role in this shared process. ‘The fast-paced technological changes have eliminated the separation between professionals and laypeople. Young people consult online forums and websites, and also contribute to them. They examine the package leaflets and prescriptions and seek advice from family members or friends with medical knowledge or a background in pharmacy’, says Hardon.
Governments also play a crucial role when it comes to avoiding risks in the use of chemical substances. The study shows that this depends heavily on each location. For example, on the Amsterdam party scene, the researchers saw how young people themselves creatively regulated the use of mind-altering substances, while the government played a potentially positive role here by providing information and making drug tests available. This is in stark contrast to a location such as Indonesia where the government is waging a deadly war against drugs, which means that young people have little access to information about risks and resources that would help to avoid them.
Chemical Youth also identifies a role for the government in addressing social practices that strongly influence the use of risky substances. This would apply in the Philippines, for example, where young women use all kinds of facial bleaches to become as ‘white’ as possible to make them eligible for a good job. The government could discourage the use of these harmful substances by promoting diversity in society more effectively.
When taking a risk-management role, Hardon notes that governments would be well advised to work with young people when doing so, building on their efforts and using their language.
Finally, Chemical Youth highlights the role manufacturers of substances and products could play in risk avoidance. This could be achieved not only by no longer producing certain products, such as facial whiteners, but also by being much more transparent about the advantages and disadvantages of their products. ‘Manufacturers should be required to communicate clearly about this’, says Hardon, ‘but unfortunately, governments issue little regulation for products such as food supplements and beauty products, probably due to economic interests. This is in contrast with the clear rules for pharmaceutical products and narcotics.’
Many manufacturers currently recommend their products through influencers, paying disproportionate attention to the positive aspects. They also do this on the platforms that young people use to inform themselves about possible risks. ‘And there is a danger here’, warns Hardon. ‘It is not always clear to young people that what they are seeing is paid marketing. In the Netherlands, the Media Act was recently amended to state that influencers must now communicate clearly when paid partnerships are involved, but this does not protect young people from influences from outside the Netherlands.’
The results of Chemical Youth have now been brought together in an accessible English-language book, ‘Chemical Youth. Navigating Uncertainty in Search of the Good Life’, which anyone can download free of charge. The book contains many links to supporting visual material on the Chemical Youth website.
The research and book will be discussed on 15 December during a roundtable discussion in Spui25 with UvA scientists Anita Hardon (introduction and explanation of book), Reinout Wiers (Chemical Breath), Amade M’charek (Chemical Whiteness), Shanshan Lan (Chemical Creativity) and Rachel Spronk (Chemical Sexualities). The moderator is Marieke de Goede.
Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences
Programme group: Anthropology of Health, Care and the Body
The Chemical Youth project is based at the University of Amsterdam and received 5 years of funding from the European Research Council (2013-2018)