The Kids Are All Right—but Why?

Young people are drinking and doing drugs less than ever before. What happened to the tawdriness of youth?
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Young people are drinking and doing drugs less than ever before. What happened to the tawdriness of youth?

If movies and television shows are any indication, your teenage years are supposed to revolve around experimentations with drugs, alcohol, and sex. With the responsibilities of young adulthood around the corner, the logic goes, teens have a narrow window to indulge all their vices. Well, it turns out that perception is an outdated one: Recent data suggests that America’s current crop of teens are better behaved than ever.

The latest batch of data from the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s Monitoring the Future (MTF) survey, which measures the values and behaviors of more than 50,000 8th, 10th, and 12th graders in a given year, found a steady decrease in teens’ attitudes toward illicit substances. The MTF survey captures decreasing use of alcohol, cigarettes, and all manner of drugs from prescription painkillers to synthetic narcotics over the last five years (marijuana consumption stayed the same, despite a gradual decline in teen pot use since 2010); the consumption of some illicit substances has hit the lowest level since the survey began in 1975.

And it’s not just drugs teens are swearing off. The MTF survey follows the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, which placed cigarette smoking among high schoolers at its lowest level in 24 years. Similarly, a two-year survey of 16,000 students by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that only 41 percent of teens claim they’ve had sex, down from 47 percent a decade earlier (the YRBS shows a related decline in HIV and other sexually transmitted infections among high schoolers). The kids, it seems, are all right: Even when it comes to potentially damaging behaviors like watching TV and getting into brawls, today’s teens are better behaved than any previous generation examined by researchers.

The responsible generation is here, sober, and eager to work.

Why is that? Part of the answer may be as simple as better education. Just as better access to and education around birth control helps to reduce teen pregnancy — a 2014 CDC report shows that it’s states with abstinence-only education that have the highest pregnancy rates—better health and drug awareness programs may have warded young people off of the potentially dangerous consequences of drug and alcohol abuse. And while the general rise of community health centers (and pediatric centers in particular) may have strengthened medical institutions designed to deal with substance-related crisis, the rise of youth outreach programs like D.A.R.E. that emerged in the 1980s have sought to tackle the issue head on.

But it’s worth noting that the “just say no!” programs favored by American high schools tend not to be effective at deterring substance abuse. According to an examination by Scientific American (and a separate 2011 review), the most effective programs tackle behavioral norms through positive interactions between trained instructors and students, teaching students social skills to help them refuse drugs and suggesting (as it appears, rightly), that substance abuse “is not especially common and thereby attempt to counteract the misconception that abstaining from drugs makes a person an oddball.”

By contrast, programs that focus on raw abstinence — and especially those “led exclusively by adults, with little or no involvement of students as peer leaders” like the police officers relied upon by D.A.R.E. since its inception in 1983, according toScientific American — are far less successful at deterring experimentation with dangerous substances. Worse, abstinence-focused programs can backfire by narrowing in on the extreme hazards of hardcore drug use: By focusing on marijuana as a gateway drug to heroin and methamphetamines, for example, programs may “inadvertently convey the impression that alcohol and tobacco are innocuous by comparison.”

Here’s an alternate theory: The kids actually want to be all right.The research into drug prevention examined by Scientific American indicates that programs focused on peer interactions are more effective, suggesting that perhaps rising levels of abstinence are a generational feature, on par with teens’ ridiculous vocabulary or preference for a smartphone over a person.

If risky behavior was once seen as a trademark of youth, today’s teens tend to be more risk-averse, a portrait of “the responsible generation.” Even cringe-worthy trend stories on juice crawls and morning raves may have their social roots in a generational optimism that’s become a defining trait in contrast to the cynicism of Generation X and self-congratulatory pessimism of the Baby Boomers.

We can see the kernels of this mindset in the demography of this generation’s crop of youths. Avoiding unhealthy behavior has been accompanied by “enthusiastically taking up socially beneficial activities” like volunteerism, charity, and social activism, as Eric H. Greenberg, author of Generation We, puts it.

Despite their overall skepticism of entrenched institutions, rejection of traditional organizations (see: religion and marriage), and unprecedented financial hardships, young people remain increasingly optimistic about their future. In turn, they’re dedicating their minds — and bodies — to solving the country’s problems; despite being low on social trust, Millennials have outpaced older generations when it comes to civic engagement. The responsible generation, obsessed with self-improvement, is here, sober, and eager to work, ready to hustle not just to make a quick buck but to change the world in the process.

No wonder young people aren’t drinking or doing drugs: They’re busy getting high on life.