Instead, teenagers must be supported and empowered to build their own capacity and to manage risks, said Dr Dermot Stokes, national coordinator of Youthreach, the education system for early school-leavers.
He was speaking at a conference to discuss the findings of a major piece of research, entitled Risk and Protection Factors for Substance Use Among Young People.
The study, commissioned by the National Advisory Committee on Drugs, compared early school-leavers to school-attending students.
The research, published last month, found that early school-leavers were up to 14 times more likely to use certain drugs as their peers who stayed in schools. They were also up to two-and-a-half times more likely to smoke and up to four times more likely to use cannabis.
The research found that parents and schools played a major part in protecting children against drinking alcohol, taking cannabis and using other drugs.
Dr Stokes said young people now had “more freedom and knowledge, but less structure and fewer reference points”.
He said teenagers live in a post-digital age and had far greater access to information than teachers. He also said that, biologically, childhood was now ending earlier.
He said adolescence was about learning how to manage risks. “Not to take risks is not healthy from a developmental point of view. People need to be able to take risks and manage them.
“It’s not about inoculating children, the critical thing is how they are going to encounter these situations and to assume responsibility for themselves.”
He said the aim should be to “build the capacity in a young person”, rather than controlling them, which was “likely to fail”.
He pointed out that Ireland was among the best in Europe for keeping children in school, with 82% completing second level. He stressed that most young people cause no problems to themselves or others. He said that while 7.6% used cannabis in the last month, 92.4% didn’t.
Bobby Smyth, consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist, said adolescents were “apprentice adults” who needed to equip themselves with the skills for adult life. He said that, if the strategy young people learn to deal with problems and to socialise is to get intoxicated, “they will arrive into adulthood as a one-trick pony”. He said if adults think it is “perfectly acceptable to get intoxicated” why should they be surprised if young people thought the same.
Dr Smyth said he was struck by the research’s findings that schools and parents had a massive influence on students.
He said international research showed that a range of “assets” helped protect children, including: a commitment to learning; positive values (such as integrity, responsibility and restraint); positive identity; family support; community empowerment; boundaries; and adult role models.