About a week ago, I told my 10-year-old son that all of his friends from his old school were attending a Valentine's Day disco this year with girls. "Isn't that funny?" I remarked. "I mean, I can't imagine you going to a dance with a girl!"
His response: "You know nothing about my private life."
I reported that exchange on my Facebook page.
Shortly thereafter, a friend with two teenagers commented wisely, "This is only the beginning."
As my children are but 10 and seven, the teen years and all of their related angst and drama still seem so far off. And yet, every time I open up a newspaper lately, I'm confronted with a new (and often disturbing) fact about teens.
On the basis that forewarned is forearmed, here are five things we all need to know about teenagers these days:
- They don't use e-mail.
- Peer pressure is influenced by brain activity.
- Popular kids are more likely to be bullies.
- Heavy drinking as an adolescent tends to continue.
- Sex isn't necessarily bad for schoolwork.
I actually learned this over the Christmas holidays when I tried (in vain) to reach one of my teenaged nieces by e-mail. Her father (my brother) shook his head. "Kids don't use e-mail anymore," he said. "They don't even use voicemail. If you want their attention, text them." He's right. According to a new survey, e-mail use dropped 59 percent among users aged 12 to 17. Instead, young people are turning to social networks to communicate, which accounts for 14 percent of time spent online in the U.S. Michelle Obama's views notwithstanding, Facebook accounts for most of that growth.
In studies at Temple University, psychologists used functional magnetic resonance imaging scans on 40 teenagers and adults to determine if there are differences in brain activity when adolescents are alone versus with their friends. They found that teenagers, unlike adults, are more likely to misbehave and take risks when their friends are watching. The good news? They'll grow out of it. The bad news? There's a lot of room for accidents and bad decisions in the meantime.
OK, this might not be all that surprising, especially for those of use who choose to re-live our high school years every week on Glee. But it's comforting to know that this well-known fact is apparently grounded in science. According to a paper published in the American Sociological Review, the more central you are to your school's social network, the more aggressive you are as well -- unless and until you reach the very top. The take-home point? Social climbing equals meanness. (Something tells me this might also be true for adults, too...)
This is both alarming and depressing. According to yet another recent study, heavy drinking in the late teen years often continues into adulthood and is associated with long-term alcohol-related problems. But here's another interesting finding: Teenagers who are raised with a religious outlook are less likely to abuse alcohol (at least through early adulthood). So think again the next time you hear someone say, "Oh, they're just kids! We all binged when we were kids!" Or send your kids to Church.
Well, here's some good news (at least for some). Sexually active teens don't necessarily do worse in school. According to a study presented at the American Sociological Association last summer, teens in committed relationships do no better or worse in school than those who don't have sex. (The same is not true for teens who engage in casual "hook-ups" -- their academic performance does deteriorate when compared with teens who abstain.) The moral of the story? If your teenager is going steady, don't sweat it -- at least on account of his or her grades. But you might want to be sure they're being careful. American teens use condoms and birth control pills considerably less than their counterparts in other industrialized countries, have more abortions and have considerably higher rates of HIV and STDs.