Teenagers. Seeing them at World Youth Day inspires hope. Seeing them in their native element too often doesn’t. The word “teenager” evokes many images: from the poodle skirts and Brill-creamed hair of the American Graffiti teen to the mini-skirts, go-go boots and bellbottoms of the ’60s. Today’s modern teenage phenomenon is just as easily caricatured, be it from real life or television culture.
They live at the mall, the skateboard park or the coffee shop, and they travel in packs. (No, it’s not an illusion; 69% of teens spend most of their time with groups of friends as opposed to a single best friend or with family.) They dress their own way — at times with half-bared bellies, bottoms and breasts. (It was the visible leather thongs displayed on the scantily-clad buttocks of two Catholic 13-year-olds at a local church girls’ club that got to me!) They have their own toys (the CDs, MP3s, iPods) and their own communication networks (through cell phones, MSN and Facebook). They have their own music, dance their own way, and, often, have their TVs and their own cars. They even speak their own language: “bling” for jewelry and “whatever” as a way to dismiss annoyances. They junk-food binge, party hard, drink, do drugs, and “hook up.”
An exaggeration? Not necessarily.
While teenage-hood and teenager-ism are not synonymous terms, 21st-century teenage subculture is rife with disturbing trends. Just less than 50% of teens in grades 9-12 have had sexual intercourse. But more than half between the ages of 15 and 19 have engaged in oral sex, with males and females reporting similar levels of experience. This figure increases to 70% for all 18-19-year-olds, supposedly because this alternate form of sex is viewed as “safer” — from infection and pregnancy.
Yet, America has the highest rate of sexually transmitted diseases in the developed world, with at least 3 million teens affected annually. And each year, almost 750,000 American girls age 15-19 become pregnant, with 34% of these ending up aborting.
The average age for first drinking alcohol is 11 for boys and 13 for girls. “Regular” drinking usually begins around 16 years, despite its illegality. It is estimated that more than 3 million teenagers are alcoholics. Teens now drink 25% of all the alcohol consumed in the United States.
Twenty percent of eighth graders report that they have tried marijuana, rising to almost 53% by grade 12. Approximately 15% of 10th and 12th graders have used amphetamines. An estimated 1.8 million youth age 12 and older are current users of cocaine.
We know that not all youths between the ages of 12 and 20 practice “teenagerism,” but a considerable percentage do. And the lifestyle is catching up with them. The teen blogosphere displays much despondency, complaints about mood swings, self isolation, feeling unloved and unmotivated, and the inability to listen, to pay attention, or to care. In fact, suicide is the third leading cause of death among young people 15 to 24, after automobile accidents and homicides.
Violent tendencies are disturbing. In 2000, about 9% of murders in the United States were committed by youth under 18. Teens account for 15% of violent crime in America. Forty-three percent of high school boys think it is okay to hit or threaten a person who makes them angry. In a nationwide survey, 17% of students reported carrying a weapon (gun, knife, or club) on one or more days in the 30 days preceding the survey, and 33% reported being in a physical fight one or more times in the past 12 months. One wonders, realistically, if this is not the seedbed of the one-too-many school shootings by teen and 20-something assassins.
Parents experience the pain of teenagerism, even in its milder forms.
Even “good Catholic families” know too intimately the rebellious and challenging behavior that can jar the peace of a home. I once watched an insolent Catholic teen sit on the veranda of a cottage and refuse to help her family pack up their vacation supplies, despite the new hair color, manicured nails and brand-name clothes all paid for by Mummy and Daddy. But even an angry reprimand and punitive action don’t seem to work as the teen separates himself or herself more and more from the family, in favor of hanging out with friends.
Catholic parents fear the interference of the transmission of faith by the “generation gap.”
“It’s just the inevitable teenage rebellion,” they say, almost self-consolingly. But is this true?
Perhaps there is no such thing as “normal rebelliousness.”
I suggest teenagerism is really a cultural phenomenon that is not necessarily linked to hormonal growth or age, and that we have been conditioned to think this is “normal.”
“Prior to World War II, the word teenager did not exist,” says Michael Platt, a father of six and grandfather of 10, and teacher of politics, philosophy and literature at both George Wythe College in Cedar City, Utah, and at the University of Greifswald in Germany. “Only after the war does the adjective ‘teen-age’ become the noun ‘teenager.’ Parents used to say ‘We have two children’ with a smile. Now they say, ‘We have two teenagers,’ usually with a sigh. If I think they have a sense of humor, I reply, ‘I’m so sorry.’”
In his little publicized book The Teenager and the West, Platt traces the invention of the “never-maturing Peter Pans” to three factors.
Teenagerism was born first of all from “the desires of an immature soul — the desires for pleasure, the desire to belong to a group, and the desire to be free of cares, difficulties and responsibilities.”
While these desires will always exist in human nature, Platt notes, “the young people who became teenagers can be blamed for yielding to the base form of these desires, for they did so freely, by choice.”
The second factor in the birth of teenagerism, according to Platt, was a pervasive fear that ran through Western society as a result of two world wars and a devastating economic depression, all within 30 years. In the wake of that, public sentiment sought security in a productive market aimed at maintaining the pace set by increased war production. “The ‘creation’ of the teenager by entrepreneurs opened up a vast market for clothes, music and drugs. There was big money in the corruption of the youth into ‘teenagers,’” he notes.
Third, Platt blames teenagerism on the sophists: “James Dean, rock musicians, Playboy, drug dealers, TV, the pill and the automobile are all mass phenomenon … but only got so powerful because of thinking.” How we think affects what we do, he argues. Thus, intellectuals of the time are the “genuine and original corruptors of youth.”
J.D. Salinger, Henry Miller and Jack Kerouac were especially formative, claims Platt, as the negative attitudes, vulgar language, hatred and rebellion toward adults, and the presentation of adult characters as phonies and liars affected those who read them.
“The adult world is weary, stale and unprofitable,” this literature said. So why bother growing up? “Live life now, before you become an adult and stop having fun.”
Platt notes that these influences would have had little effect “without the permissive negligence of three important groups — parents, statesmen and teachers.” In his assessment, large impersonal schools far from home and lengthy busing effectively abandoned children to themselves. Governmental interference in the family through economic policies that made double incomes necessary emptied the home of both parents. Universal day care rendered parents less capable of raising their own children.
Platt also points to changes in parenting philosophy, how fear of self-critique kept parents quiet: “To disapprove of the teenager, then they would have to disapprove of much of their past and much still in themselves, for we are now into the third generation of teenagers.”
He goes on to discuss how excessive pocket money for the kids pacified Mom and Dad’s guilt while they pursued their own interests. The confusion of freedom with license interfered with proper formation, as parents permitted their children to choose even that which was harmful to them.
Misunderstanding of authority and equality also played a role, according to Platt. “Being friends with your child is not the duty of the parent; doing them good is; doing them the primary good of bringing them up.”
As he continues, “The most vulnerable were exposed to the most predatory by those most naturally interested in their welfare, their own parents. What Plato thought no parents would ever do, turn over their own children to others to be re-educated, the parents of America did. After World War II, the disc jockeys, movie stars and TVs came into the American home in hordes, persons that few parents would have invited in as guests, and yet they turned over the souls of their children.”
World Youth Day, of course, takes all of these factors and turns them on their head. There you have teens in groups, learning about the Church. You have the message “Be not afraid” repeated again and again. Be not afraid of the future or your own vocation. And there we have a real philosophy capable of overcoming the sophists.
Next week: What you can do at home to counter “teenagerism.”
Holly Pierlot is a mother of five from Prince Edward Island, Canada, and author of A Mother’s Rule of Life (Sophia 2004).
To obtain a copy of The Teenager and the West, contact firstname.lastname@example.org