The teen brain is hard-wired for taking risks, and that is scary for parents. Early encounters with booze, drugs, and sex can cause trauma that haunts one deep into adulthood. We know from our own youthful experimentation about the dangers facing our children, or do we?
As the mother of a thirteen year-old girl, an article published in the New York Times Magazine on Sunday, February 5, 2012 buoyed me up from my usual state of fretting. Health writer Tara Parker-Pope reports that, looking at a number of key metrics, today's adolescents are actually far more conservative than their parents, most of whom were teenagers in the 1980s.
According to the data, teen alcohol use is at an all-time low. Today, about 40 percent of high school seniors say they have consumed alcohol recently, compared with 72 percent in 1980. Cigarette smoking is also down. About one in five teens say that they have smoked in the last month. In 1980, a third of teens smoked. Although there has been recent increase in marijuana use, 60 percent of high school seniors admitted to having tried pot in 1980, compared with 45 percent in 2011.
The research on teen sex is also encouraging. According to the Centers for Disease Control, about 37 percent of teen girls were having sex in 1988, now its down to 27 percent. For boys, about 28 percent say they have experienced intercourse, down from about 50 percent in 1988.
Every generation confounds its elders with inscrutable ways of transgressing, and today the Bermuda Triangle (at least as far as parents are concerned) is the Internet. It panics parents that kids are flirting, exploring, gossiping, and exposing themselves online in every way (shudder) one can imagine. But as Dr. Danah Boyd, an expert on teens and social media, recently pointed out in an interview with the Times, even the potential hazards of cyber bullying, sexting, and online sexual predators are seriously exaggerated. Given all the data, perhaps there is something to be said for thrill seeking in the safety of one's home with mom or dad in the next bedroom instead of in the high school parking lot.
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