Does “Adolescent” Mean “Abstain from Everything”?

Mike Males (c Youth Today, September 2001)

                America’s ultimate prevention goal is that no teenager ever have sex, drink alcohol, witness explicit media, enjoy free time not rigidly structured and supervised by adults, or access any dangerous item. In effect, major institutions propose abolishing adolescence and creating a delayed, abrupt transition from total-abstinence childhood to anything-goes adulthood.

                Forget whether such an absolutist scheme is possible. Is it smart? Consider the strongest evidence for enforcing teenage abstinence: the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s claim that the legal drinking age of 21 outlawing teen alcohol use “saved 19,121 lives” since 1975. The number is junk. NHTSA wildly inflated the small reduction in teenage traffic fatalities an outdated Insurance Institute study, using 1984 data, attributed to the 21 drinking age. This study found that in states that raised drinking ages, traffic deaths fell 9% more among 18-20 year-olds than among drivers age 21-24.

                However, more comprehensive, long-term research finds the 21 drinking has a “seesaw” effect:  teen fatalities fall, adult deaths rise. Rutgers and Baltimore University economists Peter Asch and David Levy (consultant for safety lobbies) reported that raising the drinking age to 21 slightly reduced fatal crashes by 18-20 year-olds at the expense of more deaths among 21-24 year-olds. The “legal drinking age has no perceptible influence on fatalities,” their exhaustive, federally-funded Journal of Policy Analysis & Management study concluded, “but inexperience in drinking is an apparent risk factor independent of age.”

                Their findings were confirmed in a 2001 American Economics Association paper by Swarthmore and Maryland University economists Thomas Dee and William Evans. “The nationwide increases in MLDA (minimum legal drinking age) may have merely shifted some of the fatality risks from teens to young adults,” they conclude from analyzing multiple factors. Raising drinking ages from 19 to 21 cut 18-19 year-olds’ traffic deaths by 5% but increased fatalities among 22-23 year-olds by 8%. “The magnitude of mortality redistribution,” Dee/Evans report, “is quite large.”

                These findings suggest the 21 drinking age doesn’t save lives; it merely shifts deaths, perhaps even increases them. Why? Because “learning by doing” is “an important component of teens’ maturation,” Dee/Evans note. To the extent age-based prohibitions prevent adolescents from accomplishing their necessary task of practicing adult behaviors in adult settings, risks accumulate in more perilous young adulthood, where family and peer controls are weaker. Nor is risk-taking an “adult right:” in 40% of the drunken accidents that kill teens and 90% that kill children, the drunk driver is over age 21.

                These points challenge popular policies that forbid or stigmatize teenagers from trying behaviors acceptable for adults. That teenage experimentation is healthy, that adults can influence but not ban it, are widely recognized in other cultures. Europeans generally obligate adults both to refrain from unduly risky conduct themselves and to create safe opportunities for youths to rehearse accepted adult behaviors (drinking, sex, self-supervision). However, Americans hold even perilous adult rights (heavy public drinking, handguns galore) sacrosanct while enjoining adolescent experimentation.

                Americans’ acceptance of dangerous irresponsibility as a grownup privilege generates its own lunatic logic. We treat teenagers as children when they’re good and adults when they’re bad. We would execute a 14 year-old but deny him a last cigarette, allow a middle-ager to have sex with a high schooler forbidden to watch an R-rated movie, imprison youths longer than adults who commit identical offenses, and let an adult with ten DWI’s drink legally but expel a high school senior who sips a lite beer.   Sure, it’s confusing for teenagers to grow up in a society where being “grown up” doesn’t mean behaving better, but making better excuses for misbehaving. Sure, Americans will continue to suffer epidemic social ills as long as we justify our refusal to demand maturity from adults by substituting zero-tolerance constraints to prevent youths from emulating adults. It’s a high price to pay for adult intemperance and prevention-program job security.


Justice Policy Institute researcher and U.C. Santa Cruz sociologist Mike Males’ writings, statistics, and adult irresponsibility can be viewed at


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