America's teenagers have a lot to worry about — drugs, drinking, eating disorders, sex, AIDS, street crimes, violence at school — and statistics prove they're on a dangerous path in many areas.
Young people are growing up scared, concluded researcher George Gallup, using data from three scientifically controlled samplings of teens for what he called "a reality check" to separate facts from impressions and to determine how teens really experience the world. Those "realities" are published in the book, Growing Up Scared in America and What the Experts Say Parents Can Do About It.
Gallup organized his findings around four "at-risk" behaviors which make for a frightening world: violence, sex, health issues and drug and alcohol addiction. Then, fifteen experts responded to the Gallup study, offering parents advice for helping their troubled teens. Following are excerpts from the research findings and the experts' advice:
Home and School:
• 25 percent of teens report being regularly afraid for their safety.
• 28 percent know peers who have guns or knives at school.
• 28 percent believe weapons in school are a problem.
• 21 percent have had a best friend attacked by someone with a lethal weapon.
• 26 percent of teens say they have been physically harmed by a parent or by another adult in the household in the past year.
Kathryn Whitfill, president of the National Parents and Teachers Association, said parents need to work with the schools, in such ways as patrolling the hallways and forming neighborhood walk groups to take kids to and from school. She also recommended parents knowing their children's friends and who they will be with when they go out, which she emphasized is not interfering in the child's life.
"It's really just protecting their child's life," Whitfill said. "You can't protect them forever, but you can keep them from walking into a buzz saw."
Robert McAfee, president of the American Medical Association, said violence is a learned behavior. "By the time you get to school, you have already decided how you are going to solve conflicts," he said. "The violence you see between your father and mother or the violence done to the children themselves invariably predicts how they will respond when, for instance, Johnny pushes them off the swing."
• 53 percent of high school students have engaged in sexual intercourse.
• 97 percent of teens have had AIDS education.
• 1 in 11 abortions in America is performed on a woman age 18 or under.
• 46 percent of teens support abortion rights.
• 37 percent object to abortion in any circumstance, down from 44 percent in 1991.
• 82 percent of teens think condoms should be distributed in school.
Tijuana James-Traore, director of Planned Parenthood Federation of America's pregnancy prevention program, stressed the need for teaching teens how to avoid compromising situations. Telling teens about the physiology of sex is not enough.
"They need to have discussions on it to provide their ideas for guidance and model some behaviors that teens can use in their own lives," James-Traore said, adding parents should not feel uncomfortable talking about sex or be afraid to say "I don't know" to a child's question. The same sexual pressures that have always plagued teenagers are still evident, but today's teens also must worry about AIDS, a fatal sexually transmitted disease.
Unwanted teen pregnancies and AIDS make teen sexuality more complicated — and more dangerous — than ever. "We're living in a culture now where sex is out of control in many ways, and that problem is reflected in young people," said Thomas Lickona, professor of education at the State University of New York. "We could say that sex education in this country for the last two decades has been a public health failure."
When it comes to AIDS, most kids report they have learned of the risks and the harm. The problem, experts say, is the mixed messages they are given about how to prevent it.
Lickona noted teens are told abstinence is the only foolproof prevention of pregnancy and AIDS, but sex can be safe with consistent use of condoms. "For teens that represents a green light," he said. "That's extremely deceptive, and there are enormous risks physically, emotionally, and spiritually for kids who engage."
While many professionals argue for teaching about condom use to teens because a majority are having sex anyway, Lickona favors teaching that the only safe sex is in a monogamous, committed, adult relationship in which the partners are married. Either way, parents and teens must communicate.
Drugs and Suicide:
• 21 percent of teens drink regularly, down from 41 percent in 1982.
• 80 percent say they have "very easy" or "fairly easy" access to alcohol.
• 40 percent of fifth-graders had already tried alcohol and some were binge drinking at that point, a University of Minnesota professor reported.
• 21 percent say they have been in a car at least once with someone their age who was under the influence of alcohol.
• 99 percent think crack is dangerous.
• 98 percent view cocaine as very dangerous.
• 83 percent view marijuana as very dangerous.
• 11 percent say they have smoked marijuana.
• Teen suicide has gone from 2.7 per 100,000 cases in 1950 to 11.1 per 100,000 cases in 1990.
• The five biggest factors leading to suicide are drug abuse, not getting along with parents, peer stresses, problems of growing up, and alcohol abuse.
• 59 percent of teens say they know someone who has attempted suicide.
• 26 percent know someone who has committed suicide.
• 55 percent say they have discussed the topic with friends.
• 37 percent say they have considered taking their own lives.
For serious problems such as these, the experts recommend being a good listener and paying attention to kids and their moods. Lanny Berman of the Washington School of Psychiatry said parents need to give their children guided freedom during adolescence and to be attentive to their child's fears and irrational reactions to such fears.
"Sometimes we act as cheerleaders when what they really need is a good ear," Berman said.
Experts also advise parents to act as good examples with alcohol use for their children; reinforce anti-smoking, anti-drinking, anti-drug messages; take teen depression seriously; and teach teens coping skills for when they're hurt, lonely, and angry.
• 52 percent of teens say they can't concentrate on homework because they are too tired.
• 74 percent of males play on team sports, 40 percent play individual sports and 72 percent go to gym class regularly.
• 47 percent of females play on team sports, 26 percent play individual sports and 63 percent go to gym class regularly.
Former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop said the major public health problem is that people are warned about their health habits after it is too late.
"We tell people to watch what they eat after they are obese. We tell them they shouldn't smoke after they have lung disease. We tell them not to drink after they already have a drinking problem. We tell them to exercise after they have problems with their heart," he said.
Said Gallup, "There is growing awareness that young people, strained by fatigue, are more likely to engage in risky behavior, whether this is skipping classes to catch up on sleep or to avoid tests for which they are not prepared, or more physically harmful behavior such as alcohol abuse or drug experimentation."
The best advice, Koop and other health experts suggest, is to establish early patterns with children for healthy eating and regular exercise. Both will decrease fatigue and early health-related problems. Such habits also increase healthy self-esteem and reduce risks of depression and rebellious behavior.
• 96 percent of teens want lessons in honesty.
• 77 percent support instruction on the Golden Rule.
• 92 percent believe tolerance for races should be taught.
• 84 percent believe schools should teach about various religions.
• 95 percent of teens say they believe in God and 76 percent of those believe God plays an active role in their lives.
The above statistics show teens are begging for values instruction, Gallup contended. And the most logical solution to these teen problems, the experts agree, is parents providing their children a strong foundation with good character, judgment, and values.
Lickona said the most important teaching tool parents can use is example and respect for their children. When children become teenagers, they are more likely to imitate the behavior they observed, particularly if they respect their parents.
"When my father would try to teach me a lesson, I listened because he was the same person who fixed my bike and went fishing with me," Lickona said. "Kids care about our values because they care about us and know that they are important to us."
Gallup added, "As every expert we consulted insists, nothing is as essential in fighting the risks faced by our youth than a solid, early grounding in right and wrong, often rooted in religious faith. In combating drug abuse, crime, suicide, irresponsible sex, or poor health, nothing works like good character."