The kids are alright

It has become the fashion recently, especially by some smug and patronizing comedians, to hate on the younger generation, condescendingly portraying them as self-indulgent, hypersensitive, hedonists. But Margot Sanger-Katz and Aaron E. Carroll write that the data suggest that they are way better than they are portrayed in popular culture.

Teenage dramas have typically presented a soapy view of high school, with more sex, drugs and wild behavior than in real life. But HBO’s new series “Euphoria” portrays a youth bacchanal that’s a stretch even for Hollywood. The show suggests that our modern society, with its smartphone dating apps, internet pornography and designer drugs, has made teenage life more extreme and dangerous than ever before.

Actually, nearly the opposite is true.

You wouldn’t know it from “Euphoria,” but today’s teenagers drink less than their parents’ generation did. They smoke less, and they use fewer hard drugs. They get in fewer car accidents and fewer physical fights. They are less likely to drop out of high school, less likely to have sex, and less likely to become pregnant. They commit fewer crimes.

They even wear bike helmets.

Across a wide range of classically risky teenage behaviors, today’s teenagers are getting tamer and more responsible, making better decisions and eschewing the dangerous choices that, for many adults today, defined youth.

Researchers say there is no one simple explanation for the decline in reckless behavior among teenagers. Besides positive peer pressure, some possible causes they cite include the rise of more intensive parenting; internet distractions that keep teenagers at home rather than out and about; expanded health coverage and improvements in mental health care; and the elimination of brain-damaging lead from gasoline in the 1970s.

There is such a tendency to catastrophize teenage behavior that many parents and television writers have missed this revolution in the nature of adolescence.

“In the long term, the trends are quite clear,” said David Finkelhor, a sociology professor and director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire. “But even in the short term, we’re undergoing a period of dramatic improvements that have not been widely acknowledged or underlined, and it’s too bad.”

Why is this happening? It is not clear. Kevin Drum has long been pushing the idea that it is the reduction of lead in the environment, an element known to harm the brain and cause aggressive behavior, that is the reason. That is one plausible factor but like with most major trends, there is probably not a single cause.

But whatever the reason, let’s stop perpetuating these damaging and unfair stereotypes about the younger generation and give them the respect they deserve.


  1. snoeman says

    Hear, hear. Some variation of this theme crops up with every new generation. Previous generations assert the new one is unquestionably the laziest, most self-absorbed, whiny, etc., ever. Of course, there’s no reason to believe that’s true, and as your citation suggests, maybe the kids are more alright than ever before.

  2. jrkrideau says

    but today’s teenagers drink less than their parents’ generation did. They smoke less, and they use fewer hard drugs. They get in fewer car accidents and fewer physical fights.

    Where did we go wrong?

    They even wear bike helmets.
    They drank the coolaid!

  3. jrkrideau says

    I cannot remember the author but IIRC, this compliant was also heard in third century BC Athens. And probably for every generation since.

  4. bmiller says

    I am not a social scientist by any means, but the “lead” argument is pretty convincing.

    Could another explanation, at least for the boys, be the long term decline in testosterone? We exist in a sea of estrogenic chemicals (pesticides, plastics, soy in food), and maybe the boys are not as “boyish” as they once were?

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