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Are the kids really alright?

Randall F. Clemens

A few weeks ago the New York Times published a blog entitled “The Kids Are More Than Alright.” The author had several major points:

  • Teenagers’ use of marijuana is lower than it was thirty years ago.
  • Teenagers’ use of alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs is far lower than it was thirty years ago.
  • Teenagers have less sex and lower rates of pregnancy than the previous generation.

These three points lead the author to conclude:

Every few years, parents find new reasons to worry about their teenagers. And while there is no question that some kids continue to experiment with sex and substance abuse, the latest data point to something perhaps more surprising: the current generation is, well, a bit boring when it comes to bad behavior.

After I read the short blog, I was stunned. I have no doubt that the initial report is valid and reliable. From a national perspective, drug use and teen pregnancy may be declining. But, at such a grand scale, what does that really tell us? What do we learn when numbers are stripped from context? How does drug use differ among race, class, and gender? The report provides further evidence to support the need for well-designed studies that include quantitative and qualitative data. The blog, which includes a quote from an editor of Seventeen and references to Teen Mom and Gossip Girl, introduces questions about the blurring of journalism and entertainment in one of the nation’s most influential newspapers. 

The majority of the sixty teenagers in my study of a low-income neighborhood have experimented with drugs. Marijuana is now easier to get than alcohol. I recently discussed my findings with a colleague who grew up during the 60s. He was surprised at my surprise about the prevalence of drugs. Drug use and experimentation, he said, was much more pervasive thirty years ago. Of course, the study supports that. However, such a stance ignores the changing nature of drug use. It is true that many of the participants of my study only experiment with drugs. However, it is also true that a number of them use drugs as a coping mechanism. 

Maybe drug use across the nation is the lowest it’s been in thirty years. However, a statement in like “the current generation is, well, a bit boring when it comes to bad behavior” trivializes what is occurring in low-income neighborhoods. It also moves us no closer to understanding or solving the pressing social issues of our time. Maybe it’s just a blog, but it’s also the New York Times.