Teenagers Are No Longer the Scary Delinquents of 30 Years Ago

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Sarah Kliff says today’s teenagers are “the best-behaved generation on record”:

The Centers for Disease Control released a monster report last week on the state of Americans’ health. The 511-page report makes one thing abundantly clear: teens are behaving better right now than pretty much any other time since the federal government began collecting data.

The teen birth rate is at an all-time low….High school seniors are drinking less, smoking less, and barely using cocaine….

And, of course, the rate of violent crime has plummeted among teenagers, as Dick Mendel documents here. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I’d suggest that all of this is at least partially the result of the end of leaded gasoline in America.

What’s happening today isn’t an aberration. Teenagers from the mid-60s through the mid-90s were the aberration. We managed to convince ourselves during that era that something had gone permanently wrong, but it wasn’t so. The ultra-violent gangs and reckless behavior that became so widespread simply wasn’t normal, any more than expecting teenagers to sit around in kumbaya circles would be normal. Nor had anything gone fundamentally wrong with our culture. It was the result of defective brain development caused by early exposure to lead.

I’ll never be able to prove this. No one ever will. The data is simply not rich enough, and it never will be. Nevertheless, what evidence we do have sure points in this direction. And here’s why it’s important. Even if we never clean up another microgram of lead, we’ve nonetheless cleaned up most of the lead that we poisoned our atmosphere with in the postwar years. So if the lead hypothesis is true, it means that our default fear of teenagers—beaten into us during the scary lead years—is no longer accurate. They simply aren’t as dangerous or as reckless as they used to be, and that isn’t going to change. We don’t need to be as frightened of them as we used to be. In the same way that we have to get over economic fears rooted in the 70s or the Great Depression that are no longer meaningful, we need to get over our widespread fear of teenagers that’s no longer meaningful either.

Today’s teenagers have grown up with more or less normal brain development. Some will be nice kids, some will become gang leaders. That’s always the case. But speaking generally, if you meet a group of teenagers today, they’re no more likely to be especially scary than they were in the 40s or 50s. They’re just teenagers. It’s probably going to take a while for everyone to adjust to this, but the time to start is now. Decently behaved teenagers are here to stay.

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If you're new to Mother Jones or aren't yet sold on supporting our nonprofit reporting, please take a moment to read Monika Bauerlein's post about our priorities after these chaotic several years, and why this relatively quiet moment is also an urgent one for our democracy and Mother Jones’ bottom line—and if you find it compelling, please join us.

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