What’s the problem with teens today?

“The problem with teens today is…. well…. uh…… well SOMETHING is the problem.  It sure looks like it to me.”  I sometimes hear this from adults, but often it’s unclear what the actual problem is.  And, despite encouraging facts about teens today, it seems like we can’t escape thinking there are a LOT of problems with youth today.  Do any of the following sound familiar?

  • In regard to sexual desire they exercise no self-restraint
  • They are fickle in their desires
  • They are apt to be carried away by their impulses
  • They regard themselves as omniscient and are positive in their assertions
  • If they commit a fault, it is always on the side of excess.

That sounds similar to what people say that about teens today, doesn’t it?  However, these were written over 2300 years ago by Aristotle as he described what he observed in young people.  (Kiell, 1964, The Universal Experience of Adolescence, pp. 18-19)

I recently sat through another seminar of someone who, if I analyzed the purpose of the seminar, seemed angry at today’s youth.  This speaker had to grow up in the early 1990s and can’t have teens of his own.  But, we heard many of the critiques that Aristotle said.  The main themes were that today’s teens are irresponsible, parents are too involved, youth aren’t growing up fast enough, they aren’t as happy as we were as teens, and so on and so on. 

20 years ago the seminar would have been that parents are uninvolved. This time is that parents are too involved.  In 20 years, it will be something else.  Do you see the pattern?  Perhaps it’s more about the generation parenting than youth?

The central problem was that I wasn’t sure of the data for the critique.  It seemed like it was the “good ol’ days” and a comparison to the 1950s as depicted on TV (because a teen in the 1950s would now be over 63).    And this is my problem:  It’s not always clear to me what we’re “measuring” when we talk about youth today. The data seems to be our own observations and then conversations with other adults (and we seem to collectively put on rose colored glasses about our own generation). Worse we seem to contradict the mantra we were preaching to parents in the 1980s and 1990s.

Consider this:

  • More youth are better educated in America than at any time in our history. If you want to apply the “good ol’ days” method, when did you take Algebra?  6th grade like they do now?  Hardly.  A higher percentage of students are going to college than ever before.
  • Youth today engage is less risky behavior. Cite ANY risk behavior and, with the exception of  this year’s report on teen pregnancy, the it’s down.  Often significantly.  Teens take less chances than before.  There could be a caveat here with adolescence extending into early 20s (see ‘emerging adulthood‘ by JJ Arnett) and they pick them up in that period of life.  But, we can’t just say “ah, yes, that’s it then!” We’d need to see data.
  • Responsibility? This is the one I hear the most and mirrors what was said about my generation, the teens of the 1950s (for sure), and all the way back to the days of Aristotle.  It’s VERY difficult to measure accurately, but some research indicators (like teen volunteerism) contradict this depiction of youth today. If you consider the increased homework load given teens by high schools today, I think you’ll find that teens are doing quite well demonstrating an ability to get things done.
  • Not happy and depressed? Technology, education, and parental involvement have provided a more hopeful “out” for youth today, resulting in fewer and fewer suicides.
  • Self-centeredness? More than we were?  Can we really measure this? Do we really remember what it was like in the 1970s and 1980s. Teen behavior and choices were totally about rebelling.  So much so that Dr. James Dobson and others implored parents to be involved in their teens’ lives.  So they did… now some say that parental involvement is now the problem.

Now, to be sure, there are ALWAYS issue we can improve on regarding raising teens.  But to cite the “good ol’ days” as the standard when they in fact were under criticism from our grandparents, who were under criticism from theirs, who were less responsible than theirs…  well… you get the picture.

One of the problems is that when we talk about youth problems, we aren’t always talking about something that’s “particular” to youth:  it’s true for everybody. The classic example is the “imaginary audience” – that everyone is watching us and thinking about us constantly.  Classically applied to younger teens, subsequent research demonstrated that it’s equally present in adults. Suicide is more of an adult male problem than youth, and senior citizens commit suicide at a much higher rate.

So, if I just talk with other adults about teens today, I’ll get the same response: They aren’t as _____ (responsible, civil, smart, obedient) as we were.  That’s limited research. And we’re ignoring significant robust data (from sociology of religion and developmental psych) that depicts a more nuanced and at times contradictory view of American teens today.  Put me in the camp of championing the potential among today’s youth.

ARE there problems with teens today?  You bet.  Just like there are problems with adults.

Do we need to talk about them?  Yes. But accurately.  With clear focus on what we’re “measuring.”

Are matters worse today with teens?  Maybe, but I’m doubtful. In some ways it’s much much better and we need to talk about those just as readily. Not sure why we don’t have seminars on what’s going better with teens today. But we just don’t think like that. Just like the generations before us couldn’t.  We’re wired to think poorly of youth.

And that’s a problem.


tlwtittercbTerry Linhart (Ph.D., Purdue) teaches, speaks, and researches on youth and culture.  He is professor of youth ministry at Bethel College (Indiana).  He is available for various speaking and teaching opportunities, but is booking engagements about 9-12 months in advance. Please contact him with your event or idea.  And, you can sign up to receive the latest from This Corner emailed directly to you. Terry posts about 2x a week on various topics.  No ads. No spam.  And Email addresses are kept private.