Scary survey finding: 10 million high school students drink alcohol every month, including five million who get drunk (Monitoring the Future). Real-life outcome: of America’s 30,000 monthly deaths and injuries from drunken traffic crashes and overdrinking, just 3% involve high schoolers. Logical action: let youths drink all they want, but make grownups abstain.
Behavior-risk surveys are out of control. If surveys are valid, every American teenager should be dead five times over. Sure, all teens (like all adults) are “at risk” on paper...if “risk” is wildly exaggerated, symptoms are confused with causes, and context and individuality are eliminated. Dubious surveys are misused to provoke panicky, sweeping repressions that trample teens’ rights to privacy, free time, peer interaction, and personal consideration.
An egregious example is the 2000 Add-Health report, whose main finding is that unsupervised time with peers predicts more adolescent risk than income, race, or family structure. “Every teenager,” rich and poor, “is at risk,” the press cited lead author Robert Blum, MD.
Now, if one’s “risk survey” finds poverty largely irrelevant, some head-scratching should ensue. In the real world, poorer youth (regardless of race) are several times to dozens of times more at risk from guns, violence, birth, abortion, HIV, crime, school failure, smoking, and most other ills than are better-off youths. In Blum’s own state, Minnesota, America’s poorest African American and near-richest white teenagers dwell. Compared to white youth, Minnesota black youth are 10 times more likely to have babies, eight times more likely to die violently, 12 times more likely to die by guns, and 40 times more likely to be murdered. Would Add Health authors seriously contend the biggest reason for these staggering differences is that black kids have too much free time?
After cautioning against assuming correlation equals causation, Blum does just that. He recommends that parents and programs closely supervise and structure teens’ free time and friendships -- a classic case of American scientists’ converting symptoms into causes to produce a one-size-fits-all remedy that is unwarranted, impractical, and potentially harmful.
In real families and communities, trends in and levels of teenage behavior outcomes (such as violent death, crime, birth, HIV, drunken driving, smoking, etc.) are powerfully correlated with corresponding adult outcomes, and most are connected to poverty status. Further, individual teenage risks are strongly predicted by those of family adults (as Add Health confirms). So, if alcoholic Dad’s in prison for raping the babysitter and Mom’s cooking methamphetamine with her psychotic boyfriend, it’s no surprise Junior hangs out more with peers than at home. Lest anyone think this scenario outlandish, FBI reports show 1.4 million parent-age (30-54) adults arrested for violent, property, and drug felonies in 1999, a tripling in 25 years.
Millions of children grow up in poverty and millions more live in households where adults are violent, addicted, and disarrayed -- and then, when a youth reacts by “acting out,” researchers declare adolescent behavior is the problem requiring remediation and suppression. Parents are excused for being “overworked” and “preoccupied,” politicians are excused for failing to address America’s disgraceful youth poverty epidemic, and the decades-old homily that parents should just watch kids better is duly recycled.
Unless validated by reliable outcome measures, behavior surveys are loose cannons, easily biased and exaggeration prone. They have little value except to generate media sensation and public fear, which many interests incite further through overdrawn questions and inflamed press commentary. The vast majority of teens don’t need their growing up pathologized and regimented; they need adults in families and major institutions to behave more responsibly themselves.