Historical Hysterics over Youth Culture

Panic in the StreetsEvening news stories’ headlines, bloggers, public opinion, all broadcast the dangerous effects of social media on today’s youth. Some argue that online sharing has replaced human interaction, stunting emotional growth and leaving young people socially isolated. Others fret that the increased access to sexual and violent content and general vulgarity that the internet allows is causing an erosion of teens’ moral perceptions. Whatever the conclusion, it seems everyone agrees the kids are not alright.

Anxieties over youth culture and trends are not unique to modern culture; Plato reasoned that violence portrayed in the staging of Greek tragedies was a plague on society and would encourage violence among young Athenians. The worry, I think, develops from our human fear of things that are different, changing, and not under our direct control. Young people and their behavior beautifully crystalize the unknowable and the uncontrollable.

Various control tactics have been taken to stem perceived cultural threats to teens and children. In the 1950s, moral outrage rose against the comic book industry for the violence illustrated in superhero and horror stories after psychiatrist Fredric Wertham noticed that “juvenile delinquents” he was treating in his Harlem clinic were comic readers. This would have been an interesting observation save that virtually all kids were reading comics in the 1940s and early 1950s (a market research study from 1943 found that 90 percent of high school students were comic readers).[i] Nevertheless, the public turned so strongly against comics that public burnings of issues were common.

Similarly, a crusade against rock music lyrics lead via the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC), founded by Tipper Gore and other politically connected wives, reached the Senate floor in 1985 in a move to support a music industry warning label on albums with explicit content. In their testimony, the PMRC cited the rise in teen suicide rates and crimes committed by people under the age of 18 as evidence of the declining state of America’s youth. There was a rise in crime and suicide rates in the 1980s but no evidence to suggest that music was influencing the masses to commit crime. PMRC succeed in getting industry warning labels on albums, but it did not make explicit music any less explicit, or any less popular. Music executive Danny Goldberg told NPR that the now infamous Parental Advisory Warning has had little effect on sales.[ii]

It is more difficult than ever to control the content with which young people interact given the nature of the internet and online culture. We still have explicit music and violent movies, and teens all over the world can now create content for one another like Youtube videos and more directly shape their own trends. Despite this unprecedented access to unmonitored content, most measures of risky behavior among teens have been on a steady decline since the 90s. Monitoring the Future, a research team at the University of Michigan, consistently reports decreases in the percent of students reporting any illicit drug use, the national teen pregnancy rate is at a historic low, and juvenile arrest rates have declined by 70 percent since 1996.

Seeking to control youth culture or scapegoating a particular trend has never been successful in managing real or perceived social problems among youth. There are complex, multi-faceted reasons for increased crime rates or drug-related public health concerns, and experts usually point to factors larger than a video game such as the strength of the economy or educational opportunities. Of course, we have a responsibility to protect children from damaging content and to prevent harmful behavior, but we do that most successfully by also teaching children critical thinking skills, how to set goals for themselves, and how to determine big picture values.

The juvenile justice system has recently undergone a series of reforms to reflect these truths about adolescent development. Instead of sending children to jail for missing school based on an unfounded fear truancy leads to serious crime or a misguided belief that punitive measures scare children into compliance the opposite is true;[iii] the system intervenes to provide case planning and supervision. For teens at high risk for committing crime and with serious drug use disorders, juvenile drug treatment courts (JDTCs) provide intense drug treatment, therapy to meet mental health needs, and social/behavioral skill building. Across the field, courts are increasingly using data to inform their policies and consistently assess what is working to protect youth instead of reacting from a place of control or reactionary fear. I am proud to be part of a team that is helping to implement research-informed practices in JDTCs and a wider movement to improve how we treat youth in need.

[i] Carol Tilly, “Comics: A Once-Missed Opportunity,” The Journal of Research on Libraries and Young Adults, (2014) http://www.yalsa.ala.org/jrlya/2014/05/comics-a-once-missed-opportunity/#_edn7.

[ii] Tom Cole, “You Ask, We Answer: ‘Parental Advisory’ Labels – The Criteria and the History,” NPR Music, (2010)  https://www.npr.org/sections/therecord/2010/10/29/130905176/you-ask-we-answer-parental-advisory—why-when-how.

[iii] Mark W Lipsey, James C Howell, Marion K Kelly, Gabrielle Chapman, and Darin Carver, Improving the Effectiveness of Juvenile Justice Programs: A New Perspective on Evidence-Based Practice (Washington: Center for Juvenile Justice Reform, 2010), http://cjjr.georgetown.edu/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/ebppaper.pdf.