Beyond Ephebiphobia: Problem Adults or Problem Youths?

Article excerpt

Today's mythology that most or all youths are "at risk" scatters valuable resources and dilutes efforts to help the minority of youths who are genuinely troubled, Mr. Astroth charges.

It is common today to hear that almost half of all young people between the ages of 10 and 17 are at risk of school failure, substance abuse, delinquency, and teenage pregnancy.(1) Indeed, it would appear that troubled youths are no longer the exception but have become the dysfunctional rule. Young people today are typically portrayed as an aberrant pariah class that suffers its own distinct "epidemics" bearing no relationship to adult patterns of behavior. Are today's young people really so different?

Given the barrage of adolescent problems uncovered by so-called researchers, it should come as a shocking surprise to learn that U.S. teenagers today are, by nearly every important measure, healthier, better educated, and more responsible than teens of the past.(2) Moreover, the Iowa Youth Poll for 1991, published by the Iowa State University Extension Service, revealed that most young people feel satisfied with their lives and generally positive about themselves.

Not only are today's teens healthier than teens of the past, but they are typically healthier than the adults who seem so ready to label them as "at risk." Even in such cities as Los Angeles, it is estimated that 90% to 95% of all young people are not involved in gangs.(3) Yet we are bombarded with alarms about rising gang activity in our big cities.

Like previous generations of adults, we appear to be suffering from ephebiphobia - a fear and loathing of adolescence.(4) Nearly every generation of young people has been chastised for being "out of control" or aberrant in some way. Adult claims of degeneration among the young can be found in nearly every previous decade. For example, the cover of the 6 September 1954 issue of Newsweek blared: "Let's Face It: Our Teen-Agers Are Out of Control." The article inside lamented a "national teen-age problem - a problem that is apparently getting worse." And why? "Too much divorce, too few normal homes," claimed one sociologist. Others denounced "salacious, sadistic comic books." Today, we might blame MTV.

Unfortunately, the notion of "youth at risk" has become a lens through which we view all young people, so that today adolescence is seen as some incurable social disease. For example, a study of teenage drinking in the 1950s describes patterns that are the same as those of teens today.(5) In reality, today's teens behave in ways very similar to those of teens of the past and very much like those of today's adults.

The recent sharp increase in teen psychiatric admissions is one manifestation of our pathological treatment of today's youth. Since 1980 adolescent psychiatric admissions have increased 250% to 400%, but ifs not because teens are suddenly so much crazier than they were a decade ago."(6) The Children's Defense Fund suggests that at least 40% of these juvenile admissions are inappropriate, may violate the civil rights of the "patients," and are a result of parents' inability to deal with adolescent behavior.

Though commonplace, such a pathological perspective on adolescence exaggerates the negative. Stanton Peele, a Princeton University psychologist, has observed that today's views often define adolescence itself as a diseased state. He points out that research is usually skewed toward the maladjusted young, which has created a myth of the prevalence of adolescent maladjustment.

As astonishing as it may sound, today's teens lead healthier lives than most young and middle-aged adults. Teens have lower rates of suicide, violent death, unwed pregnancy, drug abuse, smoking, and drunken driving. When youth problems do occur, adult influence is apparent.(7) For example, in Montana "nearly 60% of |teen' pregnancies are [caused] by men over the age of 21."(8) Only 29% of all |teen' pregnancies actually involve two teenagers. …