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Fridge magnets in the land of fire and ice – in search of the Icelandic model

What is the “Icelandic model” and what questions have been sought answers for using it? What are its necessary elements? What are the societal and social circumstances required for using the model successfully? In February, three adjunct professors travelled to Reykjavik to find the answer. They began an intensive expedition into the contemporary history of the sparsely populated island and especially into local assumptions regarding childhood, youth and upbringing.

As the Dennis storm bashed the streets of Reykjavik, senior researchers Tomi Kiilakoski and Mikko Salasuo at the Finnish Youth Research Network as well as Ombudsman for Children Elina Pekkarinen met a multidisciplinary group of Icelandic experts on child and youth well-being. The experts sought to shed light on various aspects of the “Icelandic model”. The meetings were two-hour session of listening, discussion and sharing scientific data. On the first day, the researchers met Ársæll Arnarsson, Professor of Education at the University of Iceland, Alma Árnadóttir, Assistant Professor in Social Work, Óskar Dýrmundur Ólafsson, Community Manager in Breiðholt suburb, together with Project Manager Thrainn Hafsteinssonin as well as the Icelandic Ombudsman for Children Salvör Nordal. The second day of the excursion began at the Vímefnalaus æska organisation’s parents’ house with Berglind Gunnarsdóttir Strandberg and Gudrun Bjorg Agustsdottir, continued at the Reykjavik University with Professor Inga Dóra Sigfúsdóttir and ended at the Icelandic Government Agency for Child Protection Barnaverndarstofa with Halldór Hauksson, Head of Substitute Care. The excursion was enabled by Guðný Björk Eydal Professor of Social Work at the University of Iceland, who planned the excursion programme for the delegation.

It was soon discovered that, at least according to the experts we met, there is no specific “Icelandic model”.

It was soon discovered that, at least according to the experts we met, there is no specific “Icelandic model”. Only Professor Inga Dóra Sigfúsdóttir, who has had an important role in promoting the model worldwide, explicitly referred to the “Icelandic model”. In her view, the “Icelandic model” is an all-round strategy for substance use prevention that includes actions concerning individuals, communities, schools, free-time activities, families and policies alike (cf. Sigúfsdóttir et al. 2020). The rest of the experts naturally recognised general references to the “Icelandic model” but they connected the concept generally and in the abstract sense to all of the actions that Iceland has taken in order to promote the well-being of young people and families since the 1990s.

Facts: Iceland 2018

Population: 356,991 inhabitants
Age 0 to 17: 80 383 (23%)
Children with an immigrant background: 2453 (2%)
Asylum seeker children: 176 (0.3%)
Reykjavik, the capital: 210,000 inhabitants
To be noted: 85% of the population lives in Reykjavik and its surrounding area

Although the experts were not unanimous about the existence of the “Icelandic model” and its key methods, core actors or level of abstraction, this did not, by any means, diminish in the Finnish adjunct professors’ interest towards the Icelandic child, youth and family policy or various practices of youth work – quite the opposite. Instead of a ready-made template, we got the chance to make our own interpretation of the “Icelandic model” and its various sections based on what was discussed, seen and heard at the meetings and on scientific data regarding the subject.

In this Viewpoint article, we are presenting our interpretation of the “Icelandic model” and its background. We will go through individual policies, actions and practices with which Iceland has sought to promote and enhance the well-being of children, adolescents and families during the last approx. 30 years. We will also provide an overview of the “Icelandic model” with respect to the rights of the child and, finally, contemplate the transferability and suitability of the model for the Finnish society.

Moods at the end of the millennium and Iceland’s youth problem

Each of the experts interviewed indicated that use of alcohol by Icelandic adolescents was the incentive that lifted child and youth aspects into a central societal topic at the turn of the 1990s. The use of alcohol by adolescents was heavily visible especially in Reykjavik. To highlight this, the presentations we received included a photograph of Reykjavik in the 1990s, showing the city centre full of young people. The same interpretation about the origin of the “Icelandic model” is found in research literature on the subject. A concern about the alcohol use and well-being of young people has developing underneath the surface for a long time, but it was finally brought forth by the first studies on risk behaviour and the use of intoxicants. According to these studies, Icelandic adolescents were drinking clearly more and heavily than their European age peers. Smoking and experimenting with cannabis were also above the European average. (For example, Arnarsson et al. 2018; Sigfúsdóttir et al. 2020.)

According to Sigfúsdóttir (2020), media had a key role in constructing the youth problem. The heavy alcohol consumption and heavy drinking of adolescents were frequently reporting at the turn of the millennium. The results of the European school survey (ESPAD), which demonstrated that the alcohol use, smoking and cannabis experiments of Icelandic adolescents were among the highest in Europe, also received wide coverage in the press. The media called for political actions for addressing the youth problem and the intoxicant abuse.

According to our interpretation, in the history of the “Icelandic model” in the early 1990s, the abuse of alcohol and other intoxicants by adolescents was recognised and acknowledged as such a strong social problem that this united the civil society, authorities, families, the government and the academic world to jointly address the youth problem. This wide-spread social upheaval and the consensus in defining the problem created a favourable ground to implement numerous actions and policies aimed at children, adolescents and families and to create and enforce new practices. At the very root, the “Icelandic model” is first of all a societal movement driving the well-being of the young generation, even involving a moral panic that mobilised the entire Icelandic society. We could describe it as an educational turn that led to abandoning old practices of upbringing and creating an entirely new ideology for promoting the well-being of children and adolescents. The interviewed persons also talked about a paradigm shift: Icelanders, whose attitude towards intoxication was liberal, became aware of drinking children and adolescents, which enabled a comprehensive turn towards a different kind of an intoxicant culture. It is striking how the uniform culture was used to promote the new paradigm: separate campaigns for following curfews, spending time together with the family and, lastly, for regulating screen times, were brought to every home with letters, TV commercials and magnets which were attached to fridge doors in each Icelandic home.

The official interpretation of the “Icelandic model”

Since there is no unanimity about the existence of the “Icelandic model”, it cannot be unambiguously modelled, either. However, experts of different fields have tried to analyse the key elements of the model from different viewpoints. One of the analyses, which was often presented to us as well, describes the “Icelandic model” in the framework of preventive work against substance abuse. In this framework, there is a strong connection between the traditional socialising institutions –home and school (see Figure 1). School has been given an especially strong upbringing duty with regard to the surrounding community that extends from the school all the way to free time. In the “Icelandic model” described in this manner, school is considered a natural environment via which the neighbourhood or the community can support young people’s well-being, learning and coping in life. In the model, the direction is not towards inside the school, but schools open up into part of the surrounding community.

Figure 1. The key elements of the Icelandic model according to Kristjansson et al.  (2019)

In the model, school community is an actor that binds upbringing and well-being together. Families also have a strong position. Parents have an active role in children’s everyday life and participate in interaction with the children and also with the educational community. Pupils at the same school and their families constitute a community that supports the children’s development at home, in hobbies, in peer groups and, naturally, at school. The model is based on five principles:

  1. Utilise primary prevention, designed to enhance the social atmosphere and environment.
  2. Develop the local community and utilise local schools, which are the natural environment in supporting children’s health, learning and success in life.
  3. Strengthen and promote the local community’s ability to make decisions based on knowledge.
  4. Create local teams where politicians, researchers, workers of different fields and members of the community can solve problems in the local area.
  5. Identify local problems and find adequate solutions to them. Seek to create long-term operating models and interventions, while taking into consideration the resources at the community’s disposal. (Kristjansson et al. 2019.)

The model was developed in the 1990s and in the early 2000s. Politicians committed to the model’s goals, together with the social movement through actions of authorities and families. The legislation was adjusted also. Significant changes took place in the Icelandic social and family policy. The first family policy programme was implemented at the end of the 1990s (Eydal & Ólafsson 2006) and the age of legal majority was lifted from 16 years to 18 years.

Highlights of sections and practices of the “Icelandic model”

The experts we met were not unanimous on the methods that represent the “Icelandic model” or the practices that have proven especially good and effective. However, they were unanimous on the fact that scientific data played a significant role in acknowledging the youth problems in the 1990s and in identifying the need for various practices and creating and monitoring them. Scientific data was used to guide actions and to identify phenomena. Likewise, the experts shared the view that the significance of communities and families in the model has been considerably strong. The cornerstone of the “Icelandic model” has been the commitment of communities – neighbourhoods, suburbs and villages – and families to unofficial social control and joint practices, such as following adolescents’ homecoming times and street patrolling by parents. The actions were taken at local level, but the guidance and framework for the actions were developed at the level of the society. The joint concern about adolescents has created a favourable atmosphere for carrying out child, adolescent and family policies.

Curfews were the part of the model that gained a lot of international attention. Curfews have been included in the Icelandic Public Order Act at least since the 1960s, but until the 1990s it was hardly followed or controlled at all (Watson 2010). At this time curfews were lifted into a national upbringing project. It is interesting that initially some youth workers resisted the stricter control of curfews and youth centres were kept open later than what was allowed. The resistance subsided quickly, however. The implementation is strongly dependent on social control by parents and the local community, but social welfare officers and the police are also involved. At weekends, there are parents’ street patrols making rounds in each district of Reykjavik, reminding children and adolescents about curfews. Children under 12 years are allowed to stay out until 8 pm and adolescents under 16 years until 10 pm. During holidays curfews are a few hours later. Regarding curfews, it is highlighted that parents also have the right to set stricter limitations to their children than the official curfews. The public authority has actively communicated the matter in different ways – such as by sending fridge magnets with curfews to Icelandic families. Several of the experts interviewed repeated that the key message from the society to families is “spend more time with your children”.

Figure 2: A fridge magnet reminding about curfews (source: (Visit an external site. The link opens in a new tab.)

According to the experts, accepting, following and supervising curfews is possible because in Iceland “everybody know each other”. Networks of social relationships in local communities can extend over many generations and parents’ social control is often directed towards the children of friends or relatives. As long as parents are committed to supervising curfews, social pressure guides all families to follow them. Some experts estimated that the significance of curfews has diminished during the recent years and they are not supervised anymore in the same manner as previously. Now there is a concern that the loosening of parents’ social control is a symptom of the social movement that supports the “Icelandic model” being weakening.

Another dimension of the “Icelandic model” that raised interest in Finland is how free-time activities have been arranged for children and adolescents. In Iceland, the aim is to provide guided recreational activities to all children and adolescents. There are many ways to organise meaningful free-time activities in each municipality, and therefore there is no one and only “Icelandic model”. Free-time activities are typically arranged after the school day in school premises, in community centres and within local recreational organisations. In addition, many children and adolescents participate for example in sports club activities near their own neighbourhood. The recreational activities of children and adolescents mainly take place in their own town district, arranged by the local recreational organisers, and the organisers take care of transportation as necessary. This makes it possible to promote the well-being of children and adolescents in co-operation between the local community, the school, the family, peers and recreational activities.

In Iceland, children’s and adolescents’ social participation, equality and recreational activities is supported by municipalities; parents receive a recreation card worth 360 euros for each child (Reykjavik) or a similar instrument that can be used to pay for children’s recreational activities. Correspondingly, parties organising recreational activities seek to carry out their activities in such a way that annual expenses would not exceed the value of the recreation card offered by the municipality. The purpose is to keep children and adolescents involved in the activity for as long as possible. To enable this, competition and gaining results in children’s recreation is secondary and the main focus is in participation.

The recreation card is facing challenges as well. For example, in the Breiðholt suburb, where many parents have an immigrant background, as many as 42 per cent are not reclaiming the card. The reasons are assumed to be the complex application process, ignorance about the card’s existence and prejudice towards recreational activities. Families with low income use the recreation card to cover morning and afternoon care costs, and children are therefore not participating in guided recreational activities is the same way as others. In the present model, children often cannot influence on choosing their hobbies or especially how these are arranged, but instead the options are defined by adults. During the interview, the experts wished that the recreation card would enable broader variation of different free-time opportunities and the possibility to try out different hobbies.

It is worth underlining that in Iceland the primary purpose and the basis for societal legitimacy of children’s and adolescents’ recreational activities is meaningful leisure time and well-being. Hobbies are used as a means to prevent substance abuse and marginalisation and to promote mental and physical well-being. We could say that the ideological basis for the Icelandic “recreational model” is very different from the Finnish model, where, for a large part of recreational activities, topics relating directly to children’s and adolescents’ well-being are in a secondary or unofficial position.

Figure 3: Recreation card (source: (Visit an external site. The link opens in a new tab.)

In English-language media, the diminishing of youth alcohol use has been considered a demonstration of the effectiveness of the “Icelandic model” (e.g. Young 2017). Meanwhile, the educational ideology behind the accomplishments has been overlooked. A feature that drew the attention of the Finnish delegation was a some sort of a shared mistrust towards adolescents’ mutual and unsupervised interaction. One of the long lines in the Finnish youth policy has been the principle that civic activity of adolescents creates positive results, both for adolescents as individuals and for the society as a whole. The creation stories of the “Icelandic model”, with a focus on the concern about adolescents’ alcohol use and the need to increase adults’ educational responsibility, highlights the need to control or even prevent spontaneous activities by adolescents and related substance use in the city environment. In developing the model, the young people’s participation has been minimal. The model could also be described such that it is labelled with a strong mistrust towards the positive outcome of adolescents’ mutual activities. Adolescents’ mutual, unsupervised and free peer learning is not considered to produce any positive results. For a Finnish viewer, the construction drawings of the model seem astonishingly adult-driven.

Although, from a Finnish point of view, the “Icelandic model” is emphasised by prohibitions and adolescents’ supervised activities, one of the goals with the model has been to build positive relationships between adolescents and adults. The first family policy programme was implemented at the end of the 1990s as part of acknowledging the youth problem (Eydal & Ólafsson 2006). A central idea was that children should have a possibility to spend time with educators. This meant both emphasising the meaning of family education and campaigning for it, and the strive to increase families’ mutual time (Eydal & Ólafsson 2006). Emphasising the parents’ role in upbringing had historical reasons, as Icelandic parents traditionally worked long hours and spent little time at home. The number of weekly working hours in Iceland remains the highest in Europe, approx. 45 hours per week (Kyzer 2019), and this was also highlighted by children when they shared their views about how the rights of Icelandic children were realised (Children and the Convention… 2018).

How does the “Icelandic model” relate to the rights of the child?

Iceland has ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1992. However, the existence of the Convention was mentioned only once in the interviews. In this connection the interviewees discussed the question whether children have sufficient possibilities to participate in the decision-making regarding their everyday life and especially their leisure time. Indeed, the “Icelandic model” includes aspects that may contradict the general principles of the Convention of the Rights of the Child. Article 12 of the Convention of the Rights of the Child requires that children are allowed to express their views on matters relating to them and that these views must be taken into account when deciding on matters related to the child. This article emphasising the child’s right to participate is one of the general principles of the Convention, which should penetrate all areas of life of the child. Children are highly valued in Iceland, but everyday life was presented as adult-driven and controlled in the interviews. This observation is supported by a report by the Icelandic state (Children and the Convention… 2018), in which children have expressed their views on the rights of the child. The responses highlighted the deficiencies in investigating children’s and adolescents’ opinions, in hearing children and in children’s participation. The Committee on the Rights of the Child also drew attention to the deficiencies regarding children’s participation in its feedback to Iceland regarding the country report in 2012 (Concluding observations… 2012).

In expert discussions, it was striking how guided sports and recreation was unquestionably considered the most adequate way for children to spend their free time. In Article 31 of the Convention of the Rights of the Child, States Parties are required to recognise the right of the child to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts. In its General Comment 17, the Committee on the Rights of the Child has specified the content of the Article. In its General Comment, the Committee emphasises the positive features of play and recreational activities included in leisure time. According to the Committee, play and recreational activities contribute to all aspects of learning; they are a form of participation in everyday life and are of intrinsic value to the child, purely in terms of the enjoyment and pleasure they afford.” (op. cit., Section 9) The Committee explicitly stresses spontaneous play and especially interaction with other children. The Committee does not recommend recreational activities that are too adult-driven – quite the opposite. According to the Committee, the benefits of play are diminished, particularly in the development of creativity, leadership and team spirit if control by adults is so pervasive that it undermines the child’s own efforts to organise and conduct his or her play activities.

In Iceland, control does not only cover recreational activities but everyday life as a whole. As viewed by the Finnish delegation, strict curfews stipulated by law, enforced by the police, are in contradiction with the principle of non-discrimination of the Convention of the Rights of the Child (CRC, Article 2). This practice would be impossible in Finland based alone on Section 6 of the Constitution that determines equality. The Committee on the Rights of the Child has also presented its concern about the fact that there is a strive to restrict the use of public spaces by children and adolescents. Such marginalisation of children and adolescents strengthens the concept of public spaces as risky environments and also builds a view of children as problematic actors and potential criminals. The Committee reminds that displacing children from public spaces can have significant consequences for their development as citizens. Although the Committee is aware of the various risks to which children might be exposed in their environment, it encourages States Parties to co-ordinate risks and safety factors because the benefits resulting from freedom are often greater than risks. Again, the Committee reminds about the participation of children and adolescents: “The best interests of the child and listening to children’s experiences and concerns should be mediating principles for determining the level of risk to which children can be exposed.” (General Comment No. 17, Section 39.) Excluding children from public spaces with curfews was not questioned in Iceland, however, but it was justified with accomplishing protection and common educational goals. The question about the relationship between curfews and the rights of the child mostly raised confusion among the experts.

What is not told about the “Icelandic model”?

Finnish researchers’ faith in the omnipotence of the “Icelandic model” is questioned when well-being indicators for Icelandic children and adolescents are examined from a broader viewpoint that expands beyond alcohol use. In a comparison published by UNICEF in 2013 (Child Well-Being… 2011), Icelandic children overperformed Finnish adolescents in all of the measured areas: material well-being, health and safety, education, behaviours and risks as well as housing and environment. The material was gathered during 2009 to 2010, before the bank crisis in the country had gained full strength. In a UNICEF comparison published in 2016, the material of which was gathered in 2013, Iceland succeeded in all of the measured areas – income, health, education and life satisfaction – worse than Finland; Iceland was ranked 20th, while Finland was second, together with Norway and Switzerland (Fairness for Children…  2013). Various indicators can be questioned, of course, but Iceland’s ranking in suicide statistics is truly striking. Especially men commit suicides more often in Iceland than in Finland, and the difference is evident among young people as well. In Iceland, suicides committed by boys of 15 to 19 years of age are at an alarmingly high level.

Suicide rates in Nordic countries in 2018.

Figure 4: Suicide rate of age group 15 to 19 years per 100,000 inhabitants in the Nordic countries in 2018 (Source:  WHO Global Health Observatory data repository statistics).

The Icelandic miracle does not seem to extend from diminishing alcohol use to broader issues of well-being. When scratching the surface it became apparent that preventing problems and getting help give raise to similar criticism against the service system and distress in communities as in Finland. For example, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has given Iceland a remark on the increased use of psychopharmaceuticals by children (Concluding Observations… 2012). Children’s and adolescents’ use of ADHD drugs has increased in Iceland and already 5 per cent of minors are using these pharmaceuticals, while the share in Finland is 1.8 per cent (Vuori et al. 2018). A relevant question is: in the end, is the well-being of children and adolescents better than in Finland?

What is efficient in the model and what is transferable?

According to what we saw, heard or read, the causation between the individual parts of the “Icelandic model” could not be clearly demonstrated. Some of the frequently presented effects are the diminished alcohol use and increased time spent with the family. Both trends are in the same time frame as the emerging of the “Icelandic model”. Numerous indirect impacts have been combined with the “Icelandic model”, but no scientific evidence was presented to us and we could not find such evidence in English-language literature with a quick search. There is no doubt that many such actions have been taken and these must have had impacts. At least the attitude of the Icelandic society towards children and adolescents has changed fundamentally since the early 1990s and the subject has rooted deeply as a central political topic.

Child Welfare Programme Leader Halldór Hauksson presented us a very interesting alternative hypothesis to explain the decrease in alcohol use and smoking by adolescents below 18 years at the end of the 1990s and in the early 2000s. The hypothesis is relevant because so-called official explanations (e.g. Kristjansson et al. 2010; Sigfúsdóttir et al. 2020) do not rely on unambiguous scientific evidence on causative relationships. Hauksson’s opinion was that the actual awakening of the Icelandic society to child and youth issues is more important than any individual model, but he highlighted the change in the age of legal majority in 1998 as a single political action. According to him, lifting the age of legal majority by two years meant that a large group of adolescents in the worst problematic age came within the scope of various child and youth services. This was evident, for example, in the number of adolescents placed in child welfare institutions, which grew from slightly over 50 persons to more than 200 young persons in a few years (Figure 5). It had a significant impact on local intoxicant abuse circles when the ones most severely out of control were no longer in the street life. We can only guess what part of simultaneous rapid decrease in alcohol use can be explained only – directly or indirectly – with the fact that these more than one hundred young people with substance abuse issues, aged 16 and 17, were placed in institutions.

Figure 5: Number of children placed in child welfare institutional care in Iceland during 1997 to 2008.

The core actor in the “Icelandic model” is school. The interviewed experts had a strong consensus about this. The same thing is emphasised in research literature. In the model, school also has a strong role in community education. This is good input for the “Finnish model” as well when considering the role of school in the model.

The “Icelandic model” is built on the idea that different actors in the local community are committed to acting in accordance with the same principles structuring actions. Although participation is not officially compulsory, the unofficial social pressure can be strong. In model, it is essential to ensure the co-operation of local actors, to set common goals and to work for these goals, to verify the results with scientific data and to demolish silos between different fields of administration. The experts who analysed the model state that it is essentially not a traditional and transferrable model, a “good practice”, but a method and ethos of local community activity (Kristjansson & al.  2019b, 10). When developing the model into a Finnish version, it is important to consider how families are introduced into the model, with what means the development of the model could be integrated into existing local cross-administrative youth policy and with what means the civic society, authorities, families and politicians could be made committed to drive same goals. That is, how could we set forth in Finland a social movement that penetrates the entire society and finds its place in the everyday life of children, adolescents and families? A justified question is whether such a manifestation of the uniform culture as in the “Icelandic model” is even a desirable phenomenon in a many-voiced society.

The list of actors in the previous paragraph describes well the adult-driven nature of the model. In the “Icelandic model”, adults determine problems, examine them based on scientific data, discuss measures to address the problems and, finally, plan and organise the functions to support young people. A noteworthy aspect in the descriptions of the model is that the participation of adolescents in the model’s content is thin, if not non-existent. Adolescents’ own participation is reduced into participation in recreational activities, without possibility to influence in the model itself, its executors or goals. Thus, the model does not include any active citizenship or participation, both of which are seen as central goals of youth policy during the 21st century, both at national and at the European level. The “Icelandic model” does not support adolescents’ spontaneous recreational or civic activity, either. These are key observation especially for youth work when creating a Finnish version of the model. When adjusting the “Icelandic model” for Finland, it must include youth civic activity and peer learning as an integral part.

In building a Finnish model, we need an overall orientation debate on how we can ensure the participation of children and adolescents. We can make the Finnish model not adult-driven but driven by children and adolescents. In the Finnish model, children and adolescents could, together with adults, determine problems, examine them based on scientific data, discuss measures to address the problems and, finally, plan and organise activities together with the surrounding community.

Our excursion to Iceland was very educational and its content was absolutely stunning. The experts we met had prepared themselves very carefully and they opened before us various interpretations of the “Icelandic model”, each one more interesting and more thoroughly considered than the other. We could not find any actual model and perhaps it cannot even be found, but we did find a society where everyone has is especially determined to promote the well-being of children and adolescents. We could learn a lot from that in Finland.


Leading Senior Researcher Tomi Kiilakoski
Finnish Youth Research Network

Ombudsman for Children Elina Pekkarinen

Leading Senior Researcher Mikko Salasuo
Finnish Youth Research Network

Editor: Sarianne Karikko.


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