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.