A Literature of Risk: Teens Dealing with Violence and Other Risky Behaviors Can Get Help from Young Adult Fiction

Article excerpt

Risky behaviors remain very real factors in the daily lives of 21st-century teens. Ranging from physical and emotional violence to drug and alcohol abuse, from risky sexual practices resulting in STDs and unintended pregnancies to driving recklessly and carrying weapons to school, these behaviors make up the main threat to adolescents' health, according to the National Longitudinal Study on Adolescent Health.

While the incidence of specific behaviors may wax and wane like the moon, one thing remains constant: "You have to realize that all adolescents are going to take risks," asserts Lynn Ponton, author of The Romance of Risk: Why Teenagers Do the Things They Do (Basic, 1998). "Adolescents define themselves," she said in a May 10, 1999, New York Times article, "through rebellion and anger at parents or other adults, engaging in high-risk behaviors including drinking, smoking, drug use, reckless driving, unsafe sexual activity, disordered eating, self-mutilation, stealing, gang activity, and violence."

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The riskiest of teen behaviors involves violence and the resulting injuries, which remain the leading causes of death among all youth aged 5-19. Of these deaths, 67% result from injury, 16% from homicide, and 14% from suicide, according to the Centers for Disease Control. These are startling--and sometimes shattering--statistics. The CDC reports that "a number of factors can increase the risk of a youth engaging in violence." Among them: "a prior history of violence; drug, alcohol, or tobacco use; poor family functioning; poor grades in school; poverty in the community; and association with delinquent peers."

Violence and its consequences

It is hard not to think that some impact comes from growing up in a violence-ridden world--the real thing, as in the Oklahoma City bombing, the Columbine shootings, 9/11, international terrorism, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the imagined but powerfully visualized (and sometimes glamorized) violence in movies, on TV, on the internet, and in video games (Grand Theft Auto, anyone?). Indeed, according to the University of Michigan Health System, "Literally thousands of studies since the 1950s have asked whether there is a link between exposure to media violence and violent behavior. All but 18 have answered 'Yes.'"

Accordingly, the exponential growth of a media presence in adolescent lives may give one pause. In his fascinating 2008 book Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men (Harper), sociologist Michael Kimmel writes, "Today's young people--from little kids to adults in their late 20s and early 30s--represent the most technologically sophisticated and media savvy generation in our history. The average American home ... has three TVs, two VCRs, three radios, two tape players, two CD players, more than one video game console, and more than one computer. ... American kids 8 to 18 spend about seven hours a day interacting with some form of electronic media; the average 13-to-18-year-old spends two hours a day just playing video games" (p. 145).

Kimmel, who teaches at Stony Brook (N.Y.) University, chillingly continues, "The dominant emotion in all these forms of entertainment is anger. From violent computer games to extreme sports, from racist and misogynistic radio show content to furious rap and heavy metal music, from the X-rated to the Xbox, the amount of rage and sensory violence to which guys have become accustomed is overwhelming. It doesn't even occur to them that all this media consumption might be extreme." Extreme and extremely desensitizing and ultimately dehumanizing, perhaps?

The American Academy of Pediatrics agrees, pointing out that "Extensive research evidence indicates that media violence can contribute to aggressive behavior, desensitization to violence, nightmares, and fear of being harmed."

As we have seen, young people have good reason to fear being harmed, and it doesn't help that, as Kimmel notes, "The most avid consumers of this new media . …