Debate: Are Teens in Turmoil?

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From: John Cloud
Sent: Feb. 16, 2007, 11:23 a.m.


I think you are naive to believe there are societies that have "no" teen delinquency and "no" teen-parent conflict. In your book you cite many pre-industrial and impoverished societies in sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere that seem to exhibit low levels of teen pathologies—but so what? Many teens are also starving in these places. I'm sure they don't have time to be delinquent. A defining feature of modern society is that we don't need our young to work, so of course they will screw up more.

Similarly, your benchmark of 100 years ago is ludicrous—society has changed so much in the last century that you can't possibly advocate returning us to the mores and cultural structures of 1907. This is atavism, not social policy.


From: Robert Epstein
Sent: Feb. 17, 2007, 7:14 p.m.

Hi John.

I mentioned our debate to a friend—a 30-year-old female—and she too was appalled. Her comment: "Doesn't he remember what it was like to be a teenager? Those were the most horrible years of my life!"

Other industrialized cultures, like Japan, don't even have words for adolescence... Your position also flies in the face of the ultimate test: common sense. Teens are still completely isolated from adults in this country; their role models are more absurd than ever; more young people than ever are being raised outside the nuclear family; they're living more than ever under the thumb of the fashion and media industries; the "war on drugs" failed miserably, and drugs are still as available as ever. And you honestly think that teen turmoil is the U.S. is declining?

Best, R.E.

From: John Cloud
Sent: Feb. 22, 2007, 2:46 p.m.


For my part, I thought being a teenager was great. What's so bad about getting up at noon? I'm sorry your friend had a terrible childhood, but I don't think most kids do.

The concept of adolescence probably didn't exist among the Huns, either. So what?

I think teens' forming their own culture is healthy. I don't think all their role models are absurd (c'mon, how hot is Justin Timberlake?). I am not sure the nuclear family is a necessary condition for health. I happen to think the "media industry" is not a bad thing (we are both part of it). I think the failure of the war on drugs is a good thing.

By the way, you display an impressive use of italics.


From: Robert Epstein
Sent: Feb. 23, 2007, 11:20 p.m.

Hey John,

The new issue of Pediatrics includes its "Annual Summary of Vital Statistics: 2005." It shows dramatic increases in the suicide rates among all clusters of young people tracked between 2003 and 2004. Again, how does this fit your theory?

Best, Robert

From: John Cloud
Sent: Feb. 26, 2007, 9:59 a.m.


The numbers are a one-year blip in a long-term trend, and they are hardly "dramatic." "For youth aged 14-19 the suicide rate increased by 11%, from 7.3 per 100,000 to 8.2 per 100,000." That's less than one extra death in 100,000. And please note that 8.2 per 100,000 is still lower than the rate of 8.5 per 100,000 in 1980.

From: Robert Epstein
Sent: March 15, 2007, 8:12 p.m.

Hi John,

Well, at least our perspectives are crystallizing. You appear to acknowledge, or at least don't dispute, the fact that teens are being restricted and also medicated with prescription drugs more than ever. But you seem reluctant to face the obvious: that the restrictions and medications are reactions to horrific teen difficulties—occurring in the U.S. and to some extent in some countries that imitate our lifestyle but nowhere else on earth. The timetable that most interests you, perhaps because of your age, is the period from about 1991 to 2003—when prescription medications and extreme restrictions (especially in schools) were reactions to school shootings and high rates of mental health problems and suicide in teens.

And this, it seems, is where we differ: where changes in a few measures of teen problems (over a very short period of years) appear to be favorable over the time period you're concerned with, I'm having trouble seeing those changes as "improvements." Meanwhile, other measures (say, of attempted suicide by teens) have seen no improvement over that same period, and still other measures (of academic performance in high school, use of inhalants, illegal and legal use of prescription drugs, and so on) have gotten worse.

The big issue is what benchmark we want to use. You want to look at teens—more medicated and more restricted than ever—post-Columbine. I want to look at American teens versus teens in history and teens in other countries around the world. Given those benchmarks, teen turmoil is still an enormous and costly problem in the U.S., and it's entirely unnecessary—a creation of a culture that infantilizes teens unnecessarily and completely isolates them from adults. Past puberty, teens are no longer children; rather than monitoring and medicating them, we need to give them meaningful incentives and opportunities to join the adult world.

Cordially, Robert

From: John Cloud
Sent: March 17, 2007, 11:23 a.m.


It's true, I'm not reflexively opposed to psychiatric medications for teens. My perspective on all drugs is fairly libertarian. If prescription medications help teens kill themselves less often or not be as violent, I don't think they're a bad thing. In many cases, I know psychiatric meds are prescribed unnecessarily. But I don't think all the drugs in the world can explain the vast improvements we've seen in psychosocial metrics for teens since the 1980s. I'm not exactly sure why teen life is getting better, but I actually think teens are more empowered than ever—through social-networking websites, through the cheap availability of cell phones, and through their busier-than-ever schedules, which—as Joseph Mahoney of Yale has shown here—tend to be surprisingly beneficial for most teens. The bottom line is, Our kids are fine.


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