Debate: Are Teens in Turmoil?

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It's a great time to be an American teenager. Adults slavishly follow teen trends—people wear ratty jeans to work; everyone checks YouTube all day; people in their 30s (OK, men in their 30s) play video games without embarrassment.

But in the media you still often see a negative portrayal of kids—kids on drugs, kids with guns, kids who suck at math. Our-kids-are-in-danger stories emit from a nexus of codependency between parents (whose default instinct is to be worried) and reporters (whose default instinct is to make others worry).

Psychologists are also frequent doomsayers about teens—none more so than Robert Epstein, former editor-in-chief of Psychology Today. In his new book, The Case Against Adolescence: Rediscovering the Adult in Every Teen (see my review from the magazine this week), Epstein argues that "many American teens are indeed in rough shape." He offers a long list of examples of what he calls "teen turmoil," everything from gang membership to drug use—all encouraged, he believes, by a pernicious teen culture that glorifies violence and substance abuse. "Attractive, trendy young people are frequently high or drunk in movies like Animal House, Requiem for a Dream, Thirteen, Weird Science, Dazed and Confused, and Clueless," he writes. Animal House? It was released in 1978. And Requiem for a Dream is probably the most mordantly anti-drug film ever made.

No matter. Epstein is quite good at promoting himself. His new book carries blurbs from such diverse figures as George Will and Mariel Hemingway. In 2002, Epstein wrote an article for Psychology Today announcing he was trying to find a woman—a perfect stranger—to fall in love with. He said he wanted to challenge "the vexing myth... that the One is out there for everyone." Instead, he argued that any two people can learn to love each other through deliberation and counseling. A media frenzy ensued, and CBS' Early Show had Epstein on several times—including with the woman he eventually met. Not surprisingly, their relationship soon fell apart under the weight of the project's stupidity. (To his credit, Epstein now says trying to build his relationship before public eyes was "a huge mistake.")

For the last few weeks, as I prepared to review The Case Against Adolescence, Epstein and I engaged in a sometimes heated online debate about whether teens are truly in turmoil. I think the evidence (summarized in my current review and also here) is quite clear: American teens are flourishing. Epstein has a different view. You can decide for yourself. Here are some (highly condensed and edited) excerpts from our more entertaining e-mails. Geek alert: if statistics make your eyes hurt, now's a great time to stop reading.

From: Robert Epstein
Sent: Feb. 12, 2007, 4:22 p.m.

Hi John:

Yes, a few statistics look encouraging, but you're missing the larger picture. I'm guessing—and please correct me if I'm wrong—that you don't have much regular contact with parents or teens. I've been having such contact fairly regularly for a very long time (Epstein is the father of four). It's rare for a parent of an American teen to feel calm about the teen years, and many parents are deeply traumatized...

Illegal drug use by teens is largely secret and ever changing. My impression from my older sons and from my students is that it's as serious as ever—and perhaps getting worse as formulas for mixing drugs at home become more common on the Internet. Hospital admission data tend to bear this out, and so does a new study by Ilene Anderson and her colleagues, showing a 15-fold increase in calls to emergency hotlines in California involving teen abuse of over-the-counter cough medicines between 1999 and 2004. "Pharming" parties also appear to on the increase... What's more, it's indisputable that the use of prescription drugs by young people—which may be replacing the "self-medicating" applications of some illegal drugs—has skyrocketed over the past decade. More is now being spent on psychoactive drugs for young people than on all other prescription medicines combined, including antibiotics.

Even with hundreds of thousands of video cameras and metal detectors now installed in our high schools, extreme acts of violence on school campuses continue to be planned or carried out... Some recent crime data also suggest some ugly spikes among criminal activity by young people in major cities...

Finally, the largest and best study of its kind ever conducted (with over 100,000 people surveyed) suggests that Americans 18 and over are most depressed at age 18, with mood problems especially severe for young females.

Respectfully, R.E.

From: John Cloud
Sent: Feb. 13, 2007, 4:01 p.m.

Robert:

I have spent plenty of time in high schools in the last 12 years as a reporter. But (as I suspect you knew) I don't have kids, so of course I don't have "regular contact" with teenagers—that would be a little creepy. It would also be irrelevant to the University of Michigan Monitoring the Future data, funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. These surveys of 8th, 10th, and 12th graders show that drug use has decreased since 1995. As for hospital-admission data, you offer none for the last five years.

It's true that cough syrup abuse and prescription drug abuse has increased, but overall drug use among teens has fallen. School violence declined steadily in the 1990s and early '00s (see http://nces.ed.gov/programs/crimeindicators/). As for overall crime, as the Bureau of Justice Statistics shows in "Juvenile Victimization and Offending, 1993-2003", crime has fallen among kids, in some cases (such as homicide) quite dramatically.

Finally, regarding your depression stats: OK, but what are the figures for 20 years ago? If you can't compare over time, you're taking a snapshot—a cheater method of statistics. You can't prove your point that our historically recent infantilizing of kids has caused them to be in turmoil unless you show they are in more turmoil today. But they are not.

John

From: Robert Epstein
Sent: Feb. 14, 2007, 8:48 p.m.

Nice to hear from you, John. Now that you've defended your viewpoint so beautifully, talk to more parents and "creepy" teens who are living their lives in pain and look at recent books by Philip Graham, Madeline Levine or other clinicians dealing with teens and their families. Then, to get some real perspective on this, look back 100 years, and then check more than 100 cultures around the world, where, according to leading anthropologists, there is no drug use by teens, no delinquency, and no teen-parent conflict. In most of the world, teens aren't trying to "break away" from adults; they're trying to become adults. There is something utterly broken about our system! We've completely lost sight of the abilities of our young people and trapped them in the utterly vacuous world of "teen culture."

Do you honestly think that the current suicide rate among teens (8 or so per 100,000 among older teens) is about to return any time soon to its 1950s level—2.7 per 100,000? Do you find estimates of 2 million annual suicide attempts among American teens to be encouraging?

Respectfully, R.E.

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