Culture Clips: State of the Teens, Summer 2018 Edition

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Are the kids alright?

It’s a question that many in our culture return to again and again. Rightly so: Today’s children represent the future of our society.

But while the question itself seems a simple one, answers almost never are. And so it is today. The news about what’s happening with young people—mostly teens, but also tweens and young adults, too—is pretty mixed. There are some hopeful trends. Some pretty sobering ones, too. And then there are the quieter changes that are reshaping what it means to grow up in the 21st century.

Let’s start with something seemingly innocuous: how teens spend their summer. Once upon a time, about half of all teens found summer jobs, a number that remained more or less stable from the 1940s through the turn of the century. But since 2000, only about a third or so have found work—numbers that fell significantly following the Great Recession. Only 35% worked last summer, according to Pew Research.

And families aren’t taking road-trip vacations together as much these days either, a trend that’s been in play since the rise of cheap airfare began in the late ’70s, according Ashley Fetters’ Atlantic article, “The Rise and Fall of the Family-Vacation Road Trip.”

Speaking of teens and driving, a brand-new report from the National Institutes of Health says that the three months after a young person first gets a driver’s license represent a critically risky window: Teens are eight times more likely to be involved in an accident or have a near miss, and four times more likely to engage in risky driving behaviors.

Of course, arguably the biggest transformative influence in teen lives is our rapidly evolving technology. In his article for The Week, “The Quiet Destruction of the American Teenager,” Matthew Walther notes,

“Few periods in American history have been as revolutionary as the last decade or so. Between 2009 and the present the use of smartphones has become ubiquitous among children. It is not uncommon for many young people to spend six or even nine hours a day in front of these screens, getting less sleep, spending less time engaged in other meaningful activities, engrossing themselves in a set of priorities and commitments that are utterly divorced from the real world in which they should be learning to live.”

Among other things, he also talks about the disturbingly high rates of self-injury, such as cutting, among teen girls, a statistic that now stands at 25%. “This statistic cannot be stage-managed,” Walther writes. “It is a stark, unignorable indictment of this country and the way that we are raising our children. It is not a state of affairs that can be explained away. A quarter of American girls, with no intention of committing suicide, mutilate themselves.”

Today’s teens are indeed growing up in a perpetually wired world, one that is potentially contributing to the growing incidence of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder according to newly published research from the University of Southern California. Scientists there found that teens using digital media the most frequently were twice as likely to develop ADHD symptoms as those who used it less.

Elsewhere in teenville, a new movie in very limited release, Eighth Grade, is earning critical praise for its realistic depiction of how complicated social media has made adolescence these days. That said, this R-rated film is also graphic enough that it’s not appropriate at all for the very audience it profiles, an irony Salon contributor Chris O’Falt unpacks in his article “Eighth Grade: Why 13-Year-Olds Aren’t Allowed to See a Movie About Themselves.” (Look for Plugged In’s review Friday, July 27, when Eighth Grade rolls much wider.)

The film includes some shockingly frank dialogue among eighth graders about certain sexual practices. Then again, they’re growing up in a hypersexualized time in which more and more entertainment suggests that every aspect of gender and sexual expression is a choice that each individual must make. In fact, two upcoming films, Boy Erased and The Miseducation of Cameron Post, deal with stories of Christian parents who sought to steer their children away from same-sex attraction. (Needless to say, those parents’ decisions aren’t something these films praise.)

Meanwhile, the animated Cartoon Network series Steven Universe recently aired an episode that featured a same-sex marriage proposal between two female characters.

Given such a steady flow of entertainment that suggests any form of sexual expression is equal to any other, it’s probably not surprising that a growing number of young people report that they no longer see themselves as “exclusively heterosexual.” According to research by Ipsos Mori, only 66% of people between the ages of 16 and 22 use that phrase to describe themselves, with study authors saying that today’s emerging generations are more likely to be “affected by more open and fluid attitudes” toward sexual identity.

Hannah Shrimpton, one of the authors of the study, also told the UK’s Telegraph, “This generation of young has grown up at a time when gender as a simple binary and fixed identity has been questioned much more widely—this is new, and will affect wider views of gender, sexuality and much broader aspects of identity.”

But not all the news about teens these days is quite so sobering. NPR reports that rates of teen sexual activity, drug use and physical bullying are all on the downswing, even though concerns about mental health issues and suicide are on the rise.  Likewise, a new British study finds that 16- to 18-year-olds in that country are having less sex, drinking less and spending more time socializing with their families.

Finally, to end on a lighter note this week, did you know it’s still possible to rent a movie from Blockbuster? Yup, it’s true. Well, technically. Unfortunately, you’ll have to travel to Bend, Oregon, to get your DVD fix, the location of the very last Blockbuster store. The good news? The store’s owner refuses to close it, according to the New York Post.

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