Experts in the Ozone

Mike Males
June 1, 1998

From Pennsylvania Avenue to Skid Row, adult-created dangers toward youth have escalated sharply in recent decades. Consider some facts:

Since 1970, the proportion of youth living in poverty has jumped 50 percent. Since 1980, according to reports by the FBI and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the 30-50 age group — the one that now parents teenagers — has seen skyrocketing rates of violent crime arrests (up 70 percent), major property crime (up 50 percent), drug-related hospital cases and deaths (up 300 percent), and drug offenses (up 375 percent). Drug-related deaths and injuries now peak at around age 40. Parents’ alcohol, drug and nicotine addictions physically endanger their kids and multiply the chances that those children will abuse those same substances.

And despite the recent attention to adolescent violence, the Justice Department reports that seven in 10 murdered adolescents are killed by adults, not by peers. The number of children and youth injured by parental violence is now half a million a year, up four-fold from 1986.

Given these breaches of the adults’ social contract with children, one would expect scholars and professionals who study kids to sound alarms about the need to restore sound investment in youth and reverse rapidly worsening parental behavior. Yet the opposite has occurred. As drug use, violence, crime, and family chaos among the parent generation rocketed upward in the 1980s and ‘90s, top authorities have acted as if adult problems don’t exist.

The adult-created crises that young people endure are nowhere to be found in recent prominent reports, including the American Medical Association’s 1990 “Code Blue,” Child Trends’ 1994 “Running in Place,” the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development’s 1995 “Great Transitions,” Public Agenda’s 1997 “Kids These Days,” and 1997’s “Protecting Adolescents from Harm,” from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (NLSAH). These are essentially the same report, repeating that the biggest risk to youth is youth. Parents are portrayed not as models for their kids, but as monitors, lecturers, enforcers and service-procurers.

The Longitudinal Study exempted adult behavior from scrutiny and focused only on teenage deficiencies. The study says the “main threats to adolescents’ health are the risk behaviors they choose” with regard to violence, suicide, smoking, alcohol, marijuana and sex. The only adult behavior problem mentioned was “time deficits” caused by “workplace pressures.”

The authors found that teenagers with “access” to cigarettes, alcohol, and marijuana at home are more likely to smoke, drink, and toke than those who have no such access. But the availability of these items in the home means parents use them. Instead of making a beeline to the logical conclusion — that parents’ habits heavily influence kids’ habits — the NLSAH authors urged parents to prevent youth “access.”

The authors of these reports assume an unreal world in which the chief policy challenge is to stow perilous items safely behind some inviolable “adults only” barrier. This assumption runs counter to consistent findings that today’s parent-age adults display at best no better — and at worse much riskier — behaviors with drugs, alcohol, tobacco, and guns than do teenagers.

Public Agenda’s survey reveals the troubling attitudes of grown-ups. Two-thirds of adults expressed moralistic condemnation against teenagers and children as young as five. Four in five parents thought other parents were bad role models for their own kids. While grown-ups wallowed in hostile stereotyping and self-righteous blaming, young people judged grown-ups on an individual basis and were more positive a good omen for the survival of our diverse society.

Young people have the right to expect mature realism from parents and authorities. They are getting too little of it from either.

Mike Males is author of “The Scapegoat Generation: America’s War on Adolescents” (Common Courage Press, 1996) and “Framing Youth: Ten Myths about the New Generation,” due out this fall.

Males, Mike. "Experts in the Ozone." Youth Today, June 1998, p. 52.

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