Pubdate: Sat, 21 Dec 2002
Source: State, The (SC)
Copyright: 2002 The State
Author: Jane Eisner, Philadelphia Inquirer
Bookmark: (Youth)


The latest news about smoking, drinking and the use of illegal drugs among 
teenagers is actually good news. Perhaps that's why it got so little attention.

The highly reputable annual survey conducted by the University of 
Michigan's Institute for Social Research was released Monday, to scarcely 
an approving nod, when it should have received sustained civic applause:

The use of tobacco, alcohol and illegal drugs fell simultaneously among 
eighth-, 10th- and 12th-graders for the first time since the Monitoring the 
Future project began tracking teenage substance abuse in 1975. Even the use 
of ecstasy declined after several years of surging popularity.

The truth can't be avoided. American teens are no longer Young Men (and 
Women) Behaving Badly.

Add those facts to a few other remarkable trends in national teen culture. 
Teen birthrates, which began dropping in the late 1980s, are continuing to 
plummet. The teen abortion rate is also dropping, more dramatically than 
the waist on their low-rise jeans.

And -- are you ready? -- the number of high school students who say they've 
never had sexual intercourse rose by almost 10 percent between 1991 and 2001.

This is not supposed to happen in the age of Britney and Buffy and Eminem 
and Columbine. Teenagers are supposed to be sullen, promiscuous, alienated 
- -- or a lethal combination of all three. We grown-ups expect them to 
reflect all of James Dean's loner arrogance, tinged with a deep distrust of 
authority left over from the 1960s and a flippant disregard for Daddy's 
rules (if not for his money).

Throw in a tongue ring or two, and the picture is complete.

In The Rise & Fall of the American Teenager, Thomas Hine writes: "The mere 
presence of teenagers threatens us .'.'. and the degree to which adults 
fear them as a group has unquestionably increased.

"The result has been the enactment of laws that deny them, as minors, 
freedom to move, gather and express themselves, and of other laws that 
require states to prosecute them as adults for a wide variety of crimes."

Why this yawning disconnect? Partly because today's teenagers spend less 
and less time in the company of parents and other adults. They're living on 
Mars while Mom and Dad are on Pluto, and everyone's just too busy and 
stressed to figure out how to occupy the same planet, let alone communicate 
in the same language.

Besides, it's much easier to demonize the kid with the spikey purple hair 
than to try to understand him.

The latest avalanche of unexpectedly good news can't be traced to a single 
magic factor, but studies do point to one thing: Teenagers will change 
their behaviors when they perceive the risk of continuing is too steep.

That, researchers believe, is what propelled the stunning and welcome 
decrease in cigarette smoking. (This week's survey found that the 
proportion of eighth-graders who have ever smoked dropped by half since 
1996.) Armed with the facts, hammered home by the dramatic anti-smoking ads 
forced on the defenseless tobacco industry, teenagers actually are making 
wise, informed decisions.

Even the percentage of teens who prefer to date nonsmokers is increasing. 
Soon they'll be nagging their parents to break the habit. You never know 
where rebellion will lead.

Other recent surveys have shown that teens disapprove of casual sex more 
than they did a decade ago -- an attitude adjustment propelled by fear of 
AIDS and sexually transmitted disease, but also by public exhortations 
toward abstinence, privacy and restraint.

"It signals a deep, broad and profound change," says Sarah Brown, director 
of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. "We should give a 
celebration party for all teens in America to say, 'You're doing the right 
thing, so don't stop!""

We "should celebrate these achievements -- and then, after the party is 
over, concentrate on a little attitude-adjustment of our own."

Perhaps we adults tend to demonize teenagers to persuade ourselves that our 
own growing-up years were not nearly so bad. "Why can't they be like we 
were, perfect in every way?" the song asks of kids today. Yeah, right.
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