Teenagers Are No Longer the Scary Delinquents of 30 Years Ago

Fight disinformation. Get a daily recap of the facts that matter. Sign up for the free Mother Jones newsletter.


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.

HERE ARE THE FACTS:

Our fall fundraising drive is off to a rough start, and we very much need to raise $250,000 in the next couple of weeks. If you value the journalism you get from Mother Jones, please help us do it with a donation today.

As we wrote over the summer, traffic has been down at Mother Jones and a lot of sites with many people thinking news is less important now that Donald Trump is no longer president. But if you're reading this, you're not one of those people, and we're hoping we can rally support from folks like you who really get why our reporting matters right now. And that's how it's always worked: For 45 years now, a relatively small group of readers (compared to everyone we reach) who pitch in from time to time has allowed Mother Jones to do the type of journalism the moment demands and keep it free for everyone else.

Please pitch in with a donation during our fall fundraising drive if you can. We can't afford to come up short, and there's still a long way to go by November 5.

payment methods

ONE MORE QUICK THING:

Our fall fundraising drive is off to a rough start, and we very much need to raise $250,000 in the next couple of weeks. If you value the journalism you get from Mother Jones, please help us do it with a donation today.

As we wrote over the summer, traffic has been down at Mother Jones and a lot of sites with many people thinking news is less important now that Donald Trump is no longer president. But if you're reading this, you're not one of those people, and we're hoping we can rally support from folks like you who really get why our reporting matters right now. And that's how it's always worked: For 45 years now, a relatively small group of readers (compared to everyone we reach) who pitch in from time to time has allowed Mother Jones to do the type of journalism the moment demands and keep it free for everyone else.

Please pitch in with a donation during our fall fundraising drive if you can. We can't afford to come up short, and there's still a long way to go by November 5.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate