From the issue dated August 8, 2008
A perennial talking point of politicians and scientists, since the time of the Greeks, is to lament how our youth are sliding into moral decrepitude, lawlessness, and poor mental health. Indeed, to hear some observers talk, particularly in this election year, young people in the United States are being battered by a coarsened culture that celebrates violence and irresponsible sexuality, placing them at greater risk than ever before of a wide variety of social maladies. Though compelling, this narrative of decline is false. According to several significant indicators, today's youth are actually faring much better than did other recent generations: They are less violent, less suicidal, less likely to use drugs and alcohol, and less likely to experience teen pregnancy (despite a small increase in teen pregnancies in 2006, they remain much lower than in 1991). But why doesn't anyone seem to know that? Why is there such a disconnect between the reality of a relatively happy, healthy group of young adults, and society's perception of them as violent and troubled malcontents?
Most of the statistics that I'm going to discuss are easy to find in
government report called "
Consider youth violence. The current rates of juvenile-perpetrated
crimes are at their lowest point since the 1970s, according to the "
The data I am presenting are essentially aggregate data, focused on nationwide trends. Certainly a reasonable question is whether specific groups remain at risk relative to those trends. Indeed, indulging in a disparagement of youth culture as a whole may distract from the vital task of identifying at-risk populations. In general the statistics for ethnic minorities follow overall trends, although gaps between certain minorities (African-Americans and Hispanics in particular) and Caucasians do persist. For instance, the proportion of youth who are neither working nor in school has declined during the past two decades for young people of all ethnicities, although to a greater degree for Caucasian than for minority youth. Also, while high-school-graduation rates have improved for all ethnic groups, graduation rates for Hispanics appear to lag behind those of other groups.
There is also a gender divide. Males are considerably more likely to
in violent crime, and despite the fact that females attempt suicide
males are likelier to succeed in killing themselves. Females tend to
males in reading and writing while remaining about equal in math,
That said, the aggregate data paint a portrait of the average teen today as basically healthy and well adjusted. So why is so little credit forthcoming?
I suspect that the nature of youth-oriented media, such as the
naughty-id-on-steroids shows that you find on MTV, plays a large role
shaping adults' perceptions. Despite the protests of some researchers,
think any of that racy content has had a negative impact. For instance,
meta-analysis by Amanda J. Holmstrom, of
My point is that the debate over the admittedly violent and libidinous nature of such programming is largely beside the point. After all, each older generation seems to turn its nose up at the next generation's art forms, blaming them for all manner of social ills. That is true whether the medium in question is video games, Harry Potter, Dungeons & Dragons, rock, Betty Boop, or jazz. In other words, I don't think there's anything remotely new about this pattern, whether in the guise of science, politics, or religion. It is one more incarnation of the "back in my day" phenomenon, as in: "Back in my day, no one was violent. We settled disputes over a friendly game of canasta. And we had no concept of sex; babies just grew in the garden, alongside the watermelons and turnips."
With age comes wisdom … and a tendency to whitewash our faults and those of our peers while highlighting the faults of our children's and grandchildren's generations — particularly as they attempt to pull away from the gentle hand of our guidance. We neglect to remember that, as young adults, we, too, were interested in sex and violence, and that some of us — more than today — had significant problems.
This historic tendency to vilify youth is indicative of how Americans indulge in a culture of fear. Politicians and scientists alike have gotten so accustomed to throwing around words like "crisis" and "epidemic" that they begin to lose any real meaning. Fear sells — it gets attention — and confronting whatever it is that we fear gives us a sense of purpose. Politicians on both sides of the aisle have learned that contented, relaxed people don't tend to vote so much. And what could make us more anxious (aside from the prospect of being blown up by some guy with a suitcase bomb) than hearing that our children are at ever-greater risk of descending into madness and moral depravity? In the end, though, perhaps it is not so much the welfare of the young for which we fear, but that in proving themselves well despite all our dire warnings, they will demonstrate that our cherished beliefs are as mortal and ultimately forgotten as those of each previous generation.
As for the youth of today, let's give them a pat on the back. Some of them are still struggling and need the help of their elders, but most appear to be blossoming into fine young adults. We may not always approve of their choices, or the entertainment that they select, but at the end of the day, the one thing that matters is that the kids are all right.
Christopher J. Ferguson is an assistant professor in the department of behavioral, applied sciences, and criminal justice at Texas A&M International University.
Section: The Chronicle Review
Volume 54, Issue 48, Page B5