It’s so easy to bemoan the youth of today. We look back on our own ‘80s or ‘90s childhoods and think: “We were so carefree back then. We didn’t have social media to make us feel like shit. We stayed out all night riding our bikes and playing. Our parents weren’t uptight, helicoptering and monitoring our every move. There wasn’t vaping to poison our lungs, or smart phones and Fortnite to turn us into couch potatoes. Oh, and no one was lying and cheating their way into college back then.”
But wait a second here. Yes, there were definitely positives about our youth – it’s natural to look back at it all wistfully. I mean, if we can ignore the awful perms and hairspray and acid washed jeans and shoulder pads, things would look just beautiful, right? The thing is that it’s not just questionable fashion choices that we’d have to push aside to see the truth about our youth.
The fact is, teens in the ‘80s and ‘90s weren’t doing that much better than they are today. We weren’t better behaved. We weren’t taking fewer risks or acting more responsibly. We weren’t kinder, more ambitious, braver, or smarter. And damnit, we definitely weren’t more honest or trustworthy than the youth of today.
In many ways, they were actually doing much worse. Just take a look at the data compiled in the last few years by the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey, an annual government survey about teen behavior that has been in effect since 1991, when many parents of current teens were teens themselves. Scouring through the results of the survey – and comparing them to results from our own youth – is definitely eye-opening.
It will humble you, and make you realize just how imperfect we all were back then. And maybe even give you hope for the future of the next generation. (Spoiler alert: This generation of kids rocks in more ways than one.)
Ok, so let’s get down to business. What do the last few years of Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Surveys tell us?
The gist of it is that when it comes to risky behaviors, kids these days have toned it down. They smoke fewer cigarettes, they drink less, and they wear their seat belts more consistently. They engage in sex less often, and practice safer sex when they do. They are fewer teen pregnancies than there were in the ‘90s. Fewer kids get into physical altercations today. And despite the rise in school shootings, kids these days are less likely to bring a weapon to school than they were 30 years ago.
If you find all of this kind of shocking, you’re not the only one. According to Vox, most adults today believe that teen behavior has actually gotten worse over the years. Take this 2013 study, for example, which asked Americans about teen pregnancy rates. 50% of responders believed the rates had gone up, and 18% believed they hadn’t changed. A minority of respondents – only 18% — guessed it right, that teen pregnancy rates have gone down a whole heck of a lot since we were teens.
Now, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that certain things have gotten worse. Kids these days experience more obesity and eat fewer vegetables. Although cigarette use has gone way down, we all know that e-cigarette use is a real issue, and one that we are just beginning to understand the scope of.
Perhaps the most frightening piece of data is that it seems like mental health issues have been increasing over the past few years. Suicide rates were actually declining between 1999 and 2007, according to the CDC, but they have spiked 56% over the past decade. This is very troubling, and experts don’t agree yet on what the cause is. Some blame technology and social media; others blame overbearing parents. Bullying is the cause of many cases of suicide as well.
My personal hunch is that the shitshow of our country these past few years – the anger and hate that has been unleashed – can’t help matters either.
However, I haven’t given up hope. My own incredible kids – who have been unafraid to stand up to bullies, and who amaze me every day with their kindness – give me hope. And the awesome kids who have made headlines standing up for gun safety laws, climate change, women’s rights, and so much more … these kids make me feel like we aren’t all totally doomed.
I think it’s our job as parents, and as citizens of the world, to keep the faith in our kids. Sure, it’s harmless fun to dwell sometimes on how much better we had it in our scrunchy-wearing, Cabbage Patch-clutching, Tab-drinking glory days. But we also need to remember that our kids are alright, that they’ve totally got this, and our job is to support them, love the shit out of them – and sit back and watch them save the world.