IN the US they're called kidults. Australian social researcher David Chalke labels them adultescents. They're the young Australians aged 18 to 30 who are extending adolescence and deferring adulthood, usually signified by milestones such as marriage, children and mortgage.
By Emma-Kate Symons
About half of them live at home with their parents until well into their 20s. They are members of an affluent demographic who have benefited from a decade of economic prosperity, low unemployment and the extra cash saved from depending on their parents.
And a significant proportion are spending a fair chunk of that cash on party drugs - increasingly in the home (their own or friends'), to avoid detection or arrest in clubs and on the street.
"It's the emphasis on the experiential and the now," Chalke says. "Taking the pleasure now is more important than investment in the future, material or social or emotional."
Research by the Australian Drug Foundation underscores the pleasure principle driving the social behaviour of cashed-up twentysomethings.
Sixty per cent of nightclubbers with an average age of 23 surveyed in Melbourne clubs and bars over the past six months said they had taken a party drug such as ecstasy, cocaine, speed, ketamine (an anaesthetic known as Special K) or gammahydroxybutyrate (a depressant variously known as GHB, GBH or Grievous Bodily Harm). The pattern is not confined to Melbourne.
The National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre described as "staggering" the finding that 20 per cent of 20 to 29-year-olds nationally had tried ecstasy. That figure is now considered conservative because it was taken from the last population survey in 2001.
Cameron Duff of the Australian Drug Foundation's Centre for Youth Drug Studies says drugs such as ecstasy have become so popular with young people they have overtaken alcohol as the party substance of choice.
"Party drug use started in the rave community in the late 1980s and early '90s and now it has spread out into the mainstream of youth culture," Duff says. "Drug use is regarded as a normal part of young people's leisure time, of going out and dancing."
But there is an often-ignored downside. One in five ecstasy users are likely to be psychologically dependent on the drug. There are reports of panic attacks, anxiety and depression -- or so-called "Eccy Mondays" or "Eccy Tuesdays", when users experience a severe psychological down a few days after a binge.
"A lot of young people use drugs in all sorts of chaotic ways," Duff says. More and more, users are popping pills they think are ecstasy but might contain traces of ketamine or other harmful substances.
Drug educators and researchers are especially worried about the spike in the use of a relatively new and inexpensive party drug, GHB, that first appeared on the Australian dance scene in the late '90s. Last month there was a spate of overdoses in Melbourne that left 10 people unconscious. Police experts warn that the drug, usually made in backyard laboratories, can be fatal.
People who choose to use GHB face significant risks, says Louise Degenhardt, chief researcher with the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre.
"In terms of reducing harm, GHB is a tricky drug to use safely," she says, noting the dangers of mixing the drug with alcohol.
Yet with GHB prices at an all-time low -- sometimes as little as $3 for a vial -- its popularity is rising.
The latest research shows GHB and ketamine are being used across the country, from Darwin to Melbourne and Sydney. And there is a connection with ecstasy. "We're fairly confident most people will have tried ecstasy before they've tried these drugs. They are adding on at a later point," Degenhardt says.
While GHB has hospital emergency rooms busy coping with overdoses on weekends, a sharp rise in the use of crystal methamphetamine, or ice, also has drug experts concerned.
"We've seen an increase in the number of seizures ... it appears availability is increasing," says Courtney Breen of the National Drugs and Alcohol Research Centre.
Party drug users are most likely to smoke ice, which is a highly effective route of administration for the drug. "But it's a potent drug, so there are harms that need to be considered," Breen says.
Dependence and mental health problems, including psychosis, were a risk for ice users, according to health professionals and law enforcement officers.
But drugs experts and educators are wary of the kind of zero-tolerance message that characterises the zealous anti-smoking campaigns of recent decades.
"We don't want to use scaremongering tactics because the young person won't listen to anything they're told," Breen says. "We need to look at the harm as well as the good things, and look at strategies to limit the harm, like using less and looking out for their friends."
Degenhardt agrees, noting that regular ecstasy users are typically sporadic, not daily, indulgers.
The biggest risks are associated with bingeing. Binge drug use, like binge-drinking, is showing up as a common high-risk behaviour among younger Australians.
The National Drug and Alcohol Centre found in 2003 that most party drug users were not frequent users.
"They're using for 48 hours, bingeing and going without sleep for two days," says Degenhardt.
Often, ecstasy use was combined with a number of other drugs such as cannabis or alcohol. However, bingers could not only overdose, they could be putting themselves in high-risk situations, including unwanted sex or rape.
Dale Stagg, spokesman for family rights group Focus on the Family Australia, oversees courses for parents on how to drug-proof children. Stagg agrees that by the time young people are in their 20s the "just say no" approach to drugs such as ecstasy or cocaine has often failed.
"At that age there have been opportunities lost to hopefully steer kids clear of harmful drug use," he says. "But history will tell us that scaremongering doesn't work. Those of us in drug education are trying to repair some of the damage done in the past. Kids have been given misinformation."
In his drug-proofing courses, run by 1700 "facilitators" around Australia, parents are advised to be more effective communicators during adolescence and beyond.
"It's all very well to teach them to use drugs safely. Let's get a bit real here, let's communicate with our kids, let's build strong families that hopefully will help our kids steer clear of ecstasy and GHB," Stagg says. "You are crossing a line from which you're not really sure you'll come back when you get into drugs like GHB."
A values conflict arises when parents of the new "adultescents" take a more indulgent attitude towards their children's abuse of drugs and alcohol. "A lot of their parents are baby boomers and they tend in some way to be more tolerant and more encouraging of that sort of life," Chalke says.
"In the old days you'd have called it irresponsible freedom."
Chalke points out that the twentysomethings are the "children of the social revolution", born after the move to no-fault divorce laws and the reality of broken families.
The answer for parents still coping with adult children and their more adolescent behaviour in the home may be more house rules -- and setting a good example.
"They are living under the family roof with certain graces and I would hope that parents are able to put in place a values base those young adults will operate within," Stagg says.
"It doesn't matter if it's a 17-year-old or a 27-year-old if there are issues impacting the wider family under that roof."
Stagg says that despite the increase in the use of party drugs, parents still believe alcohol and tobacco are the big issues they face.
"We seem to have accepted that abusing alcohol between the ages of 16 to 18 is a rite of passage," he says.
"But what are the messages we are sending as parents? We are the role models. Parents are the single biggest influence over our kids in respect to drug use."
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