REALity October, 2018                                                                             Ottawa, ON 

Today’s Teenagers are Different

In the past decade, there has been a remarkable cultural shift affecting teenagers.  This is both good and bad news.

The good news is that teenagers today prefer spending time with their family, drink much less alcohol, and are less likely to engage in sexual intercourse.  These changes are consistent with studies on teenagers conducted in Ireland, New Zealand, the U.S., Australia and the U.K.

Statistics Canada began tracking teenage pregnancy rates in 1974 and aside from several upward blips, the rates have been declining longer-term.  The rates fell 20.3% from 2001 to 2010.  However, in four provinces (New Brunswick, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and Manitoba), the teenage pregnancy rate did increase after 2010.  According to “experts”, it is being caused by a tough socio-economic climate.  They argue that teenage girls are more likely to get pregnant when they have fewer educational or employment opportunities to postpone child bearing.  Young women who feel optimistic about their future with respect to access to education and career tend not to get pregnant.

New information on teen pregnancies has come from surprising sources, such as the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) which enthusiastically endorses sex education and easy access to contraception for teenagers.  According to BPAS, teenage pregnancy rates have fallen in the U.K. by 50% since 2007.  In 1969, the conception rate was 47 per 1,000 young women 15-17 years of age, but in 2016, it was 18.9 per 1,000 young women of that age.  The BPAS survey found that the attitudes of teenagers had changed.  More than 80% of those surveyed said performing well in exams and succeeding in their chosen career path was a top priority for them.  Young people in the survey were also more likely to regard spending time with their family more important than time with their friends.  BPAS argued that these changes were due to sex education programs and better access to contraceptives.  Curiously, this conclusion has not been borne out by research conducted by Professor David Paton of Nottingham University Business School.  To his astonishment, he found that because of austerity, which resulted in the reduction in funding for teenage pregnancy programs and sex education courses, these financial cuts actually reduced conceptions.  That is, making bigger cuts to these programs led to larger decreases in birth and abortion rates among teenagers!  Professor Paton suggested that this drop in conceptions was due to two factors:  (i) an increase in the desire for education in order to attain better jobs, which tends to make early pregnancy less attractive, and (ii) the development of what Dr. Paton calls “generation sensible” which is teenagers turning away from risky activities, such as smoking, drugs, drinking and intercourse. These trends are possibly encouraged by the rise in the use of social media.

U.S. Study by The Institute of Behaviour and Health

A U.S. study by the Institute of Behaviour and Health based in Maryland, was published in the Journal Pediatrics, in July 2018.  It documents similar trends:  an increasing percentage of American youth refrain from alcohol, cigarettes, marijuana and other drugs.  According to this U.S. study, between 1976 and 2014, the percentage of high school seniors who did not use any substances, such as cigarettes, alcohol or drugs, increased fivefold to 26%.  Distinct trend lines were noted for each drug: abstinence from alcohol use has increased steadily over the past 38 years; abstinence from cigarettes increased dramatically over the past 20 years; abstinence from marijuana increased sharply from 1978 to 1992 and then levelled off with some bumps; and abstinence from many other illicit drugs increased slightly but not consistently between 1976 and 2014.  The use of any gateway drug (alcohol, tobacco or marijuana) increases the likelihood of using the other two, and non-use of any one, decreases the likelihood of using the others – abstinence from even one of the substances is good news.

The Bad News About Teenagers

There is a downside to cultural changes in teenagers today in that the increased access to computer screens and cell phones by female teenagers is linked to an increase in depression and suicidal thoughts.  A study was conducted at San Diego State University, where researchers surveyed over 5,000 U.S. teens over the course of more than a decade.  The survey found that the suicide rate for young women between 13 and 18 years increased by 65% between 2010 and 2015, and the number of girls with suicidal thoughts, such as feeling hopeless and thinking about self-harm, rose by 12%.  The number of teenage girls reporting symptoms of depression rose by 58%.  Significantly, those who spent time socializing, playing sports or exercising had fewer symptoms of depression.

Electronic Devices:  The researchers found that 48% of teens who spent five or more hours per day on electronic devices reported at least one suicide-related outcome, compared to just 28% of those who spent less than an hour a day on devices.

Symptoms of depression were also found in teens who spent a lot of time on tablets, computers and smart phones.

Social Media:  A full 86% of students reported that they visited social media sites daily, with only 7% of students saying they do not use social media at all.  One in five said they spend five hours or more on social media daily – a percentage that was significantly higher in 2017 than in 2015 (16%) and 2013 (11%), the first year of monitoring.  Male teenagers do not seem to be as affected by electronic devices as females.  Girls were almost twice as likely to spend more hours a day on social media compared to boys.  It is possible that girls are more prone than young men to experience these negative mental health effects due to social media apps like Instagram, snapchat and Facebook, where they feel pressured to look a certain way and keep up appearances with the others on their news feeds.

As a result of their study, the researchers recommended limiting screen time of teenagers to just one or two hours a day.

The changes in today’s teenagers are decidedly mixed.  Although teenagers today are more interested in school, and planning future employment and rejecting drugs, alcohol and sexual activity, they are still not a happy lot.  Apparently, this is due to their everyday use of electronics.  This makes them agitated and tired.  Therapy and medications do not work very well on them.  Restricting electronics may not resolve everything, but it is often the missing link for depressed and troubled teenagers.

Parents are not off the hook either.  A new study from the University of Michigan, C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, indicates that the greater the amount of time parents spend on their phones and other devices (even T.V.), the less meaningful interactions they have with their children.  When a child’s time spent with his/her parent is interrupted by technology, the child feels frustrated and unimportant.  This then causes the child to feel the need to act out in order to gain back the lost attention, most often in a negative way.

It is clear that spending too much time in the virtual world, as opposed to the real world, is having detrimental effects on the health and well-being of adults, teenagers, and children.  Some other negative impacts of spending copious amounts of time on our devices are:  decreased vision and eye health, mental health depression, poor cardiovascular health and increased risk of diabetes, neck, back, and other musculoskeletal problems due to poor posture, brain development and learning problems, attention deficit problems and sleep problems.

Despite all the positive attributes of technology, allowing it to consume one’s life is bad for the mental, physical, and emotional health of the entire family.