Managing technology and social media topped the list when the Deseret News asked two dozen experts what most challenges American teens. But rockier topics, including drugs and alcohol use and an increase in dating violence, also demand attention.
Today's teens are the tail end of the millennials, a group once described by The Pew Research Center as more racially tolerant and diverse, more tech savvy and "connected" socially than previous generations. It noted they are also most likely to say they are close to their parents, though they reject their parents' and others' religious and political views in record numbers.
They are also among the most distracted, according to high school English teacher Brian South of Naperville, Illinois. "I see my students as being attacked by competing messages all the time and they don't exactly know where to turn their attention at any given moment. They're on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, whatever, and there are so many voices out there. I see a lack of skill in knowing how to listen now," South said.
When it comes to letting their teens have the latest technology, parents are cursed no matter what they decide, said Garth Lasater, associate director of Ashcreek Ranch Academy, a residential treatment program for teenage boys near St. George, Utah.
"You have got to have it in your home to succeed academically. You don't have to have it to succeed socially, but that's where it's demanded to go." The result, he said, is it's harder for kids to manage healthy in-person relationships.
It's not to their advantage that U.S. teens — the Census Bureau says they number nearly 28 million — often make choices that will impact their lives for years despite the fact their brains won't be fully developed until their mid-20s, he said.
Substances and sex
Not surprisingly, drugs and alcohol are seen as major issues for youths, though use has gone down for most substances. Tina Sustaeta, a counselor in Austin, Texas, said kids have been desensitized to drugs because they see it everywhere.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, kids 12 to 20 drink 11 percent of the alcohol that's consumed and nearly 4,300 deaths a year result from underage drinking. Age 11 is the average age boys try alcohol, while for girls it's 13. CDC says the dangers to youths include unplanned sexual activity, greater likelihood of vehicle accidents, other injuries and health problems, drug abuse and more.
Sexual abuse dominates Diane Cranley's worries, while Lasater talks about the damage that porn consumption does to kids, who may first encounter it as young as age 8.
Cranley, president of Talk About Abuse to Liberate Kids Inc., based in Laguna Niguel, California, said as many as 40 percent of teens have been sexually pressured and abused. It's among the most preventable of childhood challenges, she said, if families will discuss the grooming behaviors the child molesters use, from getting one used to being touched (initially innocently) to creating guilt, fear and shame. There's family-friendly training to avoid it online at taalk.org/training.
Lasater said teens considering a relationship should ask a prospective partner about exposure to and use of pornography because it's pervasive and harmful. They should also be skeptical if the answer is "none."
Bullying repeatedly comes up as a problem for teens, but high school teacher South says he doubts it has increased. He more often sees teens who call each other out on bad behavior, he told the Deseret News. But that's not what Jennifer Rex-McCray, a Sacramento mother whose sons are 16 and 20, sees.
"It's just gotten aggressively worse," she said, describing kids she knows who posted a picture and wrote derogatory things about a girl online and others who shared publicly private letters they received. "I feel like a lot of the kids aren't monitored online and a lot of them aren't really parented," she said. "They have free rein. I grew up in a small town. If I was seen smoking a cigarette, someone would tell my mom. It's different now."
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Stopbullying.gov said 28 percent of students grades six and up say they've been bullied at school. More than 70 percent have seen bullying and nearly a third admit they've bullied others. When bystanders intervene, it said bullying stops within 10 seconds nearly 60 percent of the time.
Heather Beaven, CEO of The Florida Endowment Foundation for Florida's Graduates, a Flagler Beach-based organization, works with all kinds of kids, from girls with realistic hopes to become rocket scientists to youths who struggle to graduate.
She worries serious issues like crime and drugs are symptomatic of other things, including the fact there's not enough down time to enjoy school amid schedules so intense that in most districts nationwide "kids no longer have the ability to explore."
She sees kids who view music and art and other "optional" programs as the only reason they can bear school, but increasingly those programs are cut. The pressure is so intense that kids sometimes get to high school convinced they've already missed their opportunities to prepare for a career — that missing a certain math class in seventh grade means they can't catch up again. It's not healthy, she said.
When kids are small, parents promise to keep them safe and check for monsters under the bed. But the monsters that may worry teens — violent current events, an acquaintance's arrest or suicide, tales of a school shooting somewhere — don't prompt the same level of concern on a parent's part, said Sustaeta.
"Even with my own teens, I have to remember to make sure I check in with them on an emotional level. … Pictures and videos are instantaneous and replayed over and over with social media so we become desensitized. These are the kids I see: Common reactions are concentration difficulties, hopelessness, feeling nervous about getting on the bus and going to school. They're very likely to have anxiety. Depression can be situational or genetic."
Kids often use social media to offer each other support and a voice. "Kids and teens are not prepared to help other kids and teens," Sustaeta said, "because their brains are at the same level. I see this over and over."
Lasater sees parents who regret carving careers at the expense of time with the kids. That's hard to make up, but honesty helps. He suggests acknowledging it and letting the kids know if they want to talk about it, the parent will gladly listen.
As parents set boundaries, they should leave the door open so that a kid who steps out of bounds can still call mom or dad for rescue. McCray told her son drinking is not acceptable, but she knows it goes on. If he finds himself at a party where some are drinking, "I'm going to be called to pick him up because it's going to be bad news if I hear it from a police officer."
She doesn't see many adults watching over today's teens. Her parenting strategy has been to talk to her kids a lot and to know about them and those they befriend. "I'm the mom who volunteers to pick the kids up at midnight right after a concert. I want to be involved."
Lasater says permissive parenting dumps kids on his program's doorstep. "A lot of it could have been managed a lot more effectively if the parent had been a parent instead of wanting to be the friend," he said, adding the need for structure and boundaries is strong, but when kids enter their teens, parents tend to cave in "just to get them not to be mad any more. Don't do it."
"I think the most important thing you can do for your child is to constantly have interest and aptitude conversations with them. You are the only one helping them discover who they are," said Beaven. Making sure a child learns a foreign language is vital, too, she added. "We have to raise kids who are curious about themselves and the world around them. It's the only way to compete."
Most of all, Lasater said, parents making changes and strengthening the family should approach it with a heart of peace, not a heart of war. "They are going through the complicated time of adolescence, figuring out who they are. It's going to be bumpy."
For parents, he said, it's always a "fine and tender balance" between too much parent involvement and too little.
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