Enforcing adult chaperones of teens at Splendour in the Grass actually undermines public health

·5-min read
  <span class="attribution"><span class="source">Krists Luhaers/Unsplash</span></span>
Krists Luhaers/Unsplash

On Monday night, Splendour in the Grass, an annual three-day music festival in Byron, New South Wales, posted to social media the news that all patrons under the age of 18 “must be accompanied by a responsible adult at all times whilst at the event.”

The festival is due to begin on July 22. Prior to this new restriction from New South Wales Police, only people under the age of 16 had to be accompanied by an adult.

Changing the rules two weeks out from opening has the potential to be damaging to the livelihood of the event. Tickets start at $189 for a single day pass, and families will need to plan their days differently around the event, if they can afford additional tickets at all.

Festivals like Splendour have the opportunity to be a transformative event for young people: a unique experience with their friends, fostering social connectivity.

Events like Splendour help young people develop their own skills around healthy behaviour, but for this to happen we need to trust them – and their community.

What we talk about when we talk about safety

“Safety” has become increasingly significant in the vocabulary of researchers, public bodies, event managers and police. Social health, mental well-being, physical safety and experiences are all central to successful events – even more so now with COVID.

But there is a lack of psychological understanding in how different forms of safety can intersect.

Event managers, police and medical teams all have different views of safety within an event. Too often, event safety is considered in silos. The police are making decisions independently of event managers, medical teams and those tasked with occupational health and safety.

Experienced event managers will tell you events like Splendour are intuitively designed through many years of personal experience. This new decision demonstrates a real lack of trust on behalf of the police.

This poor communication between the event managers and police is exacerbated by the lack of consistency and tools used to maintain safety around events.

Risk assessment gets trapped in a legislative environment which bumps up against what we want an event to be. We want events to be a place where people come together and work towards one cause – this should be as true for planning the safety of an event as for the enjoyment of the event itself.

Unidirectional decisions like this from the NSW Police shut the door on creative ideas on health and safety. And without any formal evaluation, we won’t know the impacts of this on these young people, their families and the event as a whole.

There is a real opportunity for events to promote health for their audiences and the community. Part of this means there is an ownership of risk among the attendees: an agreement from everyone involved that they will work together to take care of each other.

Information sharing between onsite care providers can lead to more targeted and effective strategies, such as how to manage inebriated patrons, crowd control and drug use. All parties need to have a debrief post event and evaluate the good, the bad and the ugly, and identify and address any issues.

Read more: When the coroner looked at how to cut drug deaths at music festivals, the evidence won. But what happens next?

Evaluation ensures we are not repeating mistakes, and good strategies are continued.

Splendour in the Grass actually has a strong track record in considering the health of attendees, offering free STI screenings on site. Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are a health issue for all sexually active people; young people are at an increased risk due to the exploration of their own sexuality, and other risk-taking behaviours such as drug and alcohol consumption.

The success of this program has shown events can successfully engage young people in their health.

Learning how to navigate the world

Young people learn a lot from their parents. For many young people, their family is their safety net. But at 16 and 17, young people are more attracted to their peer group. Events give young people a chance for freedom and experimentation in a controlled environment with established support.

Freedom doesn’t necessarily mean drugs and alcohol. Instead, it is about navigating a crowd, being safe and taking care of friends.

The event managers at Splendour in the Grass want their community to look out for each other. They want participants to drink water, recycle and get home safe. They have worked for years to establish a festival community which supports this.

This decision by the police creates turbulence around the event. Rather than tasking civic responsibility onto the community which gathers at Splendour, the police are announcing they have the responsibility – without creating an opportunity to create a shared space for risk reduction.

We should be asking festival goers to support young people. We want people to teach 16 and 17-year-olds how to behave safely at these events: how to make sensible choices around drugs, how to be safe around people who are drinking, when to ask for help.

By mandating these young people must be supervised, the impact the wider community can have is diminished.

Events like Splendour in the Grass can help young people develop their own skills around healthy behaviour. But messages need to be empowering. We can empower these young people by giving them knowledge and skills about navigating the world and giving them the space to make informed choices.

Saying they need to be accompanied by a “responsible adult” will undermine the independence young people are starting to feel, and they will miss opportunities to facilitate healthy behaviours when they go back out into the world.

Read more: Three ways to help your teenage kids develop a healthier relationship with alcohol

This article is republished from The Conversation is the world's leading publisher of research-based news and analysis. A unique collaboration between academics and journalists. It was written by: Alison Hutton, University of Newcastle.

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Alison Hutton does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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