It’s the duty of people who are not teenagers to deplore the behavior of people who are, and today’s kids are getting that treatment in spades. Their elders find all sorts of reasons for alarm: the violent movies they watch, the raunchy music they listen to, the gory video games they play, the drugs they use, the crimes they commit.
But the negative impression is about as accurate as a Florida vote count. Judged by almost any standard, modern youngsters are a distinct improvement on their predecessors. Almost all the genuine news about modern teenagers is good news.
Take the scariest subject: crime and violence. Mass shootings at Columbine and other schools create the fear that kids are kegs of explosive rage, just needing one spark to detonate. A few years ago, as teen homicides climbed, Americans were warned about a coming horde of downy-cheeked “super-predators” who would create terror in the streets. In response, the law has gotten more punitive. More and more, kids who commit crimes are being prosecuted as adults and even imprisoned with adults.
So it should have been grounds for national celebration when the Justice Department reported this week that juvenile crime has not been rising but falling — and falling fast. In the last six years, the rate of homicide arrests in the 10-to-17 age group has dropped by a stunning 68 percent, reaching the lowest level since 1966. The juvenile arrest rate for the most serious violent crimes — murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault — is off by 36 percent.
Hard-liners say this proves that stern punishment deters kids from lawbreaking. In fact, states that have been more temperate have seen the same declines as those that brag about their ferocity. Florida leads the country in trying teens as adults, but its juvenile crime rate is 48 percent higher than the national average. If today’s kids are less prone to violence and larceny than in the past, maybe it’s not adults who deserve the praise, but kids.
A report published last week on the sexual experience of adolescent boys was the occasion for lamentations about the state of our youth. Published in Family Planning Perspectives, it found that though 55 percent of males between 15 and 19 have had intercourse, two-thirds have had “noncoital” experiences, most involving oral or manual contact. Experts expressed fear that these kids don’t grasp that oral sex carries the risk of sexually transmitted diseases.
Let me see if I’ve got this right. Teenagers are increasingly spurning intercourse in favor of carnal activities that carry no risk of pregnancy — and that’s bad news? You would think everyone this side of Hugh Hefner would be rejoicing that the number of teens who have had actual vaginal sex, after rising for decades, has declined in the 1990s. Teen pregnancy also dropped by 17 percent between 1990 and 1996, thanks in part to more widespread use of contraceptives.
For years, we’ve been telling kids that premarital sex is dangerous because it can lead to pregnancy and AIDS, and guess what? They’ve been listening. More than half of 15- to 19-year-old girls, and 45 percent of boys, have never had intercourse. All the evidence suggests that adolescents are weighing the risks of various types of canoodling, and then making sensible and responsible, if not perfect, decisions about what to do when the urge strikes.
It would be even better, of course, if they would all just abstain until marriage — you know, the way all the baby boomers did. But absent a new wave of chastity, adults ought to be relieved to find that hormone-addled teenagers are capable of approaching the subject of sex with a due regard for their health and well-being.
They’ve already shown they can do that in other matters — better, in fact, than their parents and older siblings did at the same age. Self-destructive behavior is on the wane wherever you look. In 1985, 41 percent of youngsters between 12 and 17 consumed alcohol regularly. By 1995, that number had been cut in half.
Twenty years ago, half of all high school seniors had used marijuana in the past year. Today, only one in three has. Cigarette smoking among high school seniors, which topped out at 29 percent in 1977, is now down to 21 percent.
All the evidence suggests that kids today — while not averse to occasionally doing things that annoy, confound and even shock their elders — are headed firmly in the right direction. The title of “the greatest generation” has already been taken by their grandparents. But this generation looks just fine.