Spot checks

A new survey finds wayward behaviour among teenagers. Lighten up - it's a learning curve.

Ray Crowley

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Topics Politics

‘Half of all pupils admit breaking the law’, read Monday’s news headlines, ‘and the other half are liars!’.

Okay, so I made the second bit up.

The story in question is a survey carried for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation among 11- to 16-year-olds across the UK ‘to assess their involvement in crime, drug and alcohol misuse and other antisocial activities’ (1).

Apparently, ‘a quarter of students aged 13 and 14 admitted downing five or more alcoholic drinks at a session’ (2). This hardly sounds like front-page stuff to me. Isn’t it quite normal for teenagers to experiment with alcohol and drink too much on some occasions? I would be far more shocked if half of Year 9 students sat down with a glass of fine Burgundy to watch Inspector Morse on a Saturday night.

Another shock-horror statistic was that ‘One in five boys in Year 11 [ages 15 and 16] admitted attacking someone intending to hurt them seriously’ (3). Hasn’t everyone? Even myself, as a respectable 21-year-old, would have to tick that box. It was my best friend in secondary school and I wanted to kill her. But wanting to kill somebody is very different from doing so – and playground scuffles are very different from gangland warfare.

The survey also revealed that 11- to 16-year-olds tried shoplifting (Superdrug really misses the tester body sprays), sniffing glue (frequent use was rare), illegal drugs and playing truant (4). Well, everyone tries stupid things, don’t they? Forty-year-olds try snowboarding; somebody I know tried not getting a TV licence. She got a big fine and now knows better. The most messed up people I met at university were the ones who hadn’t tried anything, and on the brink of their first important romance were stressing about how to unhook a bra.

In general, the highest proportion of kids committing offences were in Year 10. In Year 11, they were probably too busy with GCSEs and had already grown up a bit. It’s all part of a learning curve.

Columnist Madeleine Bunting criticises the survey’s ‘demonisation of teenagers’ and flags up an alternative problem facing beleaguered 11- to 16-year-olds: their ‘intense vulnerability’ (5) She talks about the disappearance of 13-year-old Amanda Dowler, the huge number of girls with eating disorders and the rise in suicide rates among young men. Well, that’s a much more positive light in which to portray teenagers, isn’t it?

Perhaps, asks Bunting, the vulnerability and criminality of teenagers is down to ‘a culture which is uniquely ill-suited to adolescents’, where ‘the process of individuation is acutely painful, and which many never negotiate, leaving them with confusion and conflict for the rest of their lives’.

The lady needs to lighten up. True, teenage years are never going to be without their upsets. Kids will make mistakes (that is how they learn); they will have to have sex for the first time (again how they learn); there will be spots. This is because we can’t be born already married with 2.4 kids a job and a dog. To present the young generation as a muddied reflection of all the problems in society is slightly morbid – Bunting makes being 14 sound like a terrible disease that only a few survive.

In spite of this, most teens do manage to recover and enter into the adult world to lead normal lives. Even the grown-up sitting next to you might be an ex-teenager himself.

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Topics Politics

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