Why today’s teens might surprise you

As a former high school teacher, counsellor and a parent who has raised four sons over the bridge to adulthood, I am passionate about understanding and supporting our teens and young adults so they can all grow and thrive.

Even though I am constantly updating my knowledge by reading excellent books and articles written by those who work with teens or who study adolescence, being a teen today is even more different than I could ever have imagined. I wrote an article some time ago about the concept of there being a chasm between teens and their parents, and I think it’ll be helpful to write an update to that blog given that I wrote it before the world was impacted by a global pandemic.

We need to acknowledge that the world we live in now is so very different from the world parents of teens lived in when they were adolescents. With 24/7 world news of every disaster and crisis being poured into our homes, our children are marinated in more trauma than ever before. The digital world – while I acknowledge that it has brought many benefits – has created some additional challenges particularly for our emerging adults and how they see the world and themselves.

One of the things that makes my blood boil is the fact that the largest tech companies in the world have deliberately created algorithms that marinate us in more negative content.

It seems the more negative the content, the more people stay engaged and that means the more advertising that they are exposed to and the more money the companies make. Why are we more drawn to negativity? Well it’s all down to a function of our evolution called ‘negativity bias’, which means we’re designed to look out for threats to our survival. In his book, Stolen Focus, Johann Hari urges us all to put pressure on tech companies to demand that they change these algorithms (You can hear him talk about that here.)  That’s a whole other blog, in fact it requires a big push of people power. It’s not impossible though and I just want to plant the seed here that we could improve the wellbeing of our children and our teens significantly by demanding this kind of change. Our kids wellbeing should not be at the mercy of making profits.

But what can parents of teens do right now, living in the world as it is?

Not only do our teens need rails on the bridge, they need caring humans to help them. Sometimes, the best thing we can do if we are raising a teen or teaching a teen or working with teens, is have them share their life through their lens, while we listen and observe with compassion and curiosity. As a former counsellor, that was exactly how I approached the time I spent with teens who were struggling. I wanted to hear their story, without judgement and to help them find a way to understand and then to navigate a better way of being themselves. To be reassured that you are not broken, or dumb or not enough and that you are simply experiencing one of the most turbulent times of transformation in a human life, can be a real lightbulb moment for a teen.

So often, they simply hear all the messages about how they are disappointing people, they’re not working hard enough, they lack focus and motivation, and they seem to always have their eyes on a screen, especially a phone.

In Australia every year, Mission Australia does a Youth Survey and in 2022 they had responses from 18,800 young people surveyed between April and August. The main three challenges that were identified were school challenges (41.5%), mental health challenges(27.7) and relationship challenges with friendships and family (19.7). Sadly and deeply concerning, the number one killer of 12- to 25-year-olds in Australia continues to be suicide.

Statistically both our boys and our girls are struggling with poorer mental health in our homes, schools and communities. Given that adolescence is such a stressful and tumultuous time of change, feeling stressed and overwhelmed needs to be recognised as quite normal. I remember being a really moody teenager and I wrote really dark poetry, and yet I had moments when I was happy.

Dr Lisa Damour, an American clinical psychologist who specialises in teenagers, wants us all to know that mental health isn’t just about feeling good or happy. Rather, she would like to see mental health be more about having the right feeling at the right time in the right context and then to have the ability to manage that feeling in a way that doesn’t hurt anyone else and actually brings a sense of relief. This makes such good sense to me because as a moody teen, I would often take myself on long walks in nature when I was having big ugly feelings. Interestingly, I still do that today.

Some good news

We have known that today’s teens are drinking noticeably less than their parents’ generation. We have also been aware that smoking has also drastically decreased over time. There is some research that shows that the use of marijuana has also dropped. Overall, though, in a recent research study that considered countries around the world, it has been identified that there has been a significant decline in the risky behaviour of adolescents in general.

This has to be the best news possible given that we know:

  • adolescence is a time when many teens yearn for their own autonomy and choices;
  • and have a tendency to avoid the wisdom and guidance of parents and teachers as they strive for that autonomy;
  • and they often make impulsive poor choices due to the fact their prefrontal cortex is still developing.

In this comprehensive study, the researchers found that across the developed world, there had been a dramatic decline between the late 1990s and approximately 2015 in adolescent smoking, drinking, in underage sex and also juvenile crime.

I found the decrease in juvenile crime and underage sex quite illuminating, given that the media seems to portray a very different picture. And we need to remember, that bad news (often sensationalised) is what the media tends to focus on. There’s that negativity bias again!

Why the change in risk-taking behaviour?

The research found that the most significant reason for some of the reductions especially around alcohol and smoking, has been the extensive education around potential harm. Many parents came to realise that giving their teenagers alcohol early was extremely problematic not only for physical health reasons, but also due to the link to mental illness. If our teens are drinking less they are also likely to make less risky decisions in social situations.

Given the increasing rates of young people using e-cigarettes and vaping, with the dangers of developing nicotine addiction it is obviously time for a major education focus in that direction.

There has been a significant decline over the last 10 years in face-to-face socialising among teens and in Europe and North America this has been linked to a significant drop in adolescent risky behaviour. Given that teens are prone to being influenced by peers and friends, this makes sense. For example, research is very strong around the influence of driving at night with friends in the car versus driving without friends in the car. And in some places there are laws in place around this. It is much more dangerous to have your friends in the car with you as you are more likely to be distracted or choose more risky behaviour in terms of speed. Sadly, there have been some tragic multiple deaths of young people in car accidents over the last 12 months in Australia.

 If, like me, you thought this shift in risky behaviour was because the digital world has replaced the real world, it seems it’s not so simple.

Much is written about the ‘displacement effect’ of the digital world, which basically means that engagement in the digital world stops other activities that have been a normal part of childhood and adolescence. A number of studies showed that heavy Internet users, particularly social media users, were more likely to smoke and drink than those who rarely use the Internet! One study hypothesised that a rise in computer gaming was empirically linked to declining adolescent binge drinking in six Nordic countries but found that there wasn’t an association. (I have to say though I have spoken to young gamers who said they felt they were safer in their bedrooms gaming, rather than being out on the streets with their mates being tempted to make poor choices).

Even before the pandemic, research showed there was a significant decrease in the amount of unstructured time spent among teen friends. Our kids are not playing as much with other kids outside, and the decline in resilience, coping skills and the capacity for self-determination has been well documented. Vital social and emotional skills are learnt through the dynamics of human interaction especially through play. We all need practice in learning how to lose, how to cope with disappointment, how to be creative to form strategies and the ability negotiate with. Perhaps this is a contributing factor.

The double-edged sword of a less risky adolescence

The last 20 years has seen a massive decline in risky play for children in many parts of the world. As Tim Gill writes, we have created a risk-averse society where parents are hyper vigilant and monitor their children much more than previous generations. Could this be also contributing to the decrease in risky behaviour? I’m not saying it’s a bad thing that adolescents are taking less risks – I’m just saying some of the reasons behind this may indicate that it’s a double-edged sword. Sometimes as emerging adults we have to take potentially big life risks – to leave home, get a job or to dive into an intimate relationship, so some risk taking is necessary.

More good news is that the shift in parenting from strict authoritarian styles, to more connected and respected styles, has meant there has been less teen rebellion. Being emotionally closer to your parents means that more adolescents are spending time with their families rather than their friends and they seem to be more compliant with parental expectations, which ultimately results in less risky behaviour. Hallelujah that is fabulous news! This result from the study was not found in all countries however it became evident in many.

Dr Arne Rubinstein and Andrew Lines have both been strong advocates for the importance of rites of passage in adolescence, where young people experience markers of transition that help them prepare to become adults. In many parts of the world there have been delays in these markers like getting a driver’s license, getting a job and leaving home. Some of these have been driven by financial challenges, however it is becoming more and more common for these things to be happening later. There is some argument that these delays may mean that risky behaviours are happening later, and given the growing maturity of the executive function of the brain, they may simply be making better choices as a consequence.

Another possible influence that is a double-edged sword is the increased pressures to succeed in school and beyond. There is evidence that some young people see drinking and partying as not being compatible with their ambitions in academics, sport, or career. Sadly, this increasing pressure, is impacting the wellbeing of many students especially with heightened levels of stress and anxiety.

Over the years it has become more difficult for young people to get into the workforce, then with the global financial crisis, followed by a pandemic,  many have less disposable income to be able to afford alcohol and cigarettes. They just don’t have enough money to spend! There is conflicting evidence to this idea, however it may be applicable to some.

We know that young people are far more aware and concerned than previous generations were about the environment, equity and discrimination, and well-being. Some scholars and researchers have proposed that a decline in risky behaviours may be a shift in youth culture where healthy lifestyles are becoming more fashionable.

“Healthy is the new cool,” the research paper purports.

Back here in Australia Sharon Callister, CEO of Mission Australia asked young people in the 2022 Youth Survey for suggested solutions to the issues that they face. The results were enlightening and instructive and she found that many of them had the answers to so many of the challenges.

“Young people have the answers. They’ve voiced their concerns and solutions loud and clear. I encourage everyone reading this report to genuinely listen, ensure young people are included in decision-making processes, and take the actions available to them to ensure young people can access the opportunities and supports they need to thrive. Young people hold strength and power to create a bright future for Australia, and we must do all we can to support them so they can follow their dreams and create a better way forward for everyone.”– Sharon Callister CEO, Mission Australia

To be honest, I am finding many of our teens and young adults more aware, more concerned, more passionate than previous generations. They are worried about the environment, they do tend to embrace diversity more openly, and they are finding ways to become better informed, and to be a part of the solution to the problems they see. I guess one of the positives of all the technology is they can share their views more widely too.

I hope this is giving you food for thought and possibly giving you an opportunity to refresh the lens with which you view our teens. They have always needed significant, caring adults to guide them, an opportunity to have a voice and to be heard, and we can all make a difference by leaning in with compassion and understanding, not judgement and shame.