Fact or fiction: Today’s teenagers are more wild than ever

For decades, teenagers have gotten a pretty bad rap from the generations that came before them. The clothes, hairstyles and music may change, but the age-old notion of teenagers being wilder than ever before predates anyone old enough to have the thought. Complaining about wayward teens may be a parental cliché, but that’s only because it’s true, right?

Not so fast parents: According to a new study at the University of Michigan, today’s kids are actually a little more conservative than many of you were at their age.

Researchers recently released a survey indicating that today’s teens are less likely to drink alcohol, have sex or use drugs than teens growing up a few decades ago. For example, in 1980, 72 percent of high school seniors said they had recently tried alcohol. Fast-forward about 30 years and that number has hit to historic lows. In 2011, only 40 percent of teens said they had drank alcohol in the past month, with notable drops in episodic, binge drinking.

“It’s part of a reassuring trend that implies that people are getting the message that alcohol isn’t some teenage rite of passage,” says John R. Knight, MD, director of Children’s Hospital Boston’s Center for Adolescent Substance Abuse Research (CeASAR). “Drinking really can be dangerous for young developing minds, and maybe more people are becoming aware of that fact.”

The same goes for tobacco use. At the start of the 1980s almost one-third of all high school seniors said that they smoked cigarettes frequently. Today, most seniors say they have never touched a cigarette.

And despite the popularity of “reality” shows that suggest today’s teens are all sex-crazed, rates of teenage sex and pregnancy are actually on the decline too. In the late 1980s, half of boys ages 15 to 17 had sex; and by 2010 that number fell to just 28 percent. The percentage of sexually active teenage girls fell by more than ten percent since 1980 and birth and abortion rates among U.S. teens fell to record lows in 2008 as increased use of contraceptives sent the overall teen pregnancy rate to its lowest level since at least 1972.

“Drinking really can be dangerous for young developing minds, and maybe more people are becoming aware of that fact.”

But that’s not to say we’re out of the woods yet. Even if the University of Michigan survey truly reflects the changing behavior of America’s youth, teen drug use and pregnancy rates are higher here than in most other developed nations.  In fact, marijuana use among teens rose in 2011 for the fourth straight year—a sharp contrast to trends of the previous decade. Daily marijuana use is now at a 30-year peak level among high school seniors, which Knight says could be representative of cannabis’s “softening image” in the media, courtrooms and its recently acquired medicinal status in some states.

So what can parents do to encourage these positive trends and discourage the negative ones? According to our experts, communication is key.

To reduce drinking and substance abuse in their homes, Knight suggests these tips for parents:

  • Stay informed on latest information about how alcohol and drugs affect young people’s brains.
  • Set a good example and act responsibly with your own substance and alcohol use. He also suggests adults not drive after having more than one drink in front of children, since it could send a dangerous message to impressionable teenagers about driving safely.
  • Set clear expectations when it comes to alcohol.  Parents should talk often with their children about alcohol, and be very open and consistent about their rules. Parents should never offer to buy alcohol for their children with the misguided notion that underage drinking is somehow safer under parental supervision.

For information about the health risk associated with teen drinking, as well as advice for parents and teenagers about alcohol, please visit teen-safe.org, an information-sharing website created by Knight and his colleagues at (CeASAR).

When it comes to reducing teen pregnancy rates, education is crucial and needs to come from multiple sources, says Sonia Chalfin, RN, PNP of Children’s Young Parents Program.

“Parents, teachers and health care providers need to feel comfortable discussing the details of pregnancy prevention with their kids or the teenagers they work with,” she says. “They shouldn’t be afraid that the access to information will encourage young people to have sex too early. In fact, the more age-appropriate reproduction information young people know, the better off they will be when it comes to making good decisions for themselves.”

If you are teenager looking for reputable information on sexuality and/or pregnancy, or if you are a parent unsure about how to address the issue with your child, Children’s Center for Young Woman’s Health and Young Men’s Health, can provide helpful information for young people of both genders and their parents.