A look at fractured world of today's teens


SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. -- If making it through adolescence in one piece has always been a gamble, the current crop of teen-agers is being forced to play with a marked deck.

Starved for stability at home and scared by doom-and-gloom predictions about the future of the planet, today's teens are struggling hard to keep a grip, say participants at the 99th annual convention of the American Psychological Association, which ended Tuesday.

One major point emerges from the slew of studies presented at the meeting: Teen-agers are paying the price for the epidemic of fractured families over the past two decades.

"This is the first generation growing up from the high number of broken families," says Laureen Light, who just finished a year as a therapist at California State University, Long Beach's student counseling center. "We're reaping the consequences of that."

Here's a look at some of the reports and research from the convention.

* Fears: Back in the good old days, when researchers asked teens about their fears, issues like boys, girls and getting into college topped the list. No more. Now teen-agers are more likely to worry about whether the world will be around long enough for them to grow up.

Andrew Bennett and Carolyn Klein of McGill University in Montreal asked 478 suburban high-schoolers to list their worst fears. To their surprise, globe-threatening environmental disasters topped the list. Unemployment, AIDS, World War III and drugs and violence followed close behind.

On the positive side, heightened awareness of world problems may help make teen-agers "more responsible adults."

* Dating and sex: Bombarded by MTV and other sex-obsessed media almost from the cradle, some teens are dating and having sex almost as soon as they hit double digits. "We were really shocked," says Amy Swarr of Loyola University in Chicago. "When I was in junior high, nobody went out with anybody."

But the precocious behavior can stunt emotional development, Ms. Swarr and her Loyola colleague Paul Crowe found. The researchers compared fifth- through eighth-graders who go on single dates to those who date in groups, and found that the youthful Lotharios had worse relationships and a poorer self-image.

"The kids who dated in groups tended to feel more in love," says Ms. Swarr. The group daters also felt better about their bodies and more accepted by peers.

* Alcohol and drugs: The bad news here is that even the good news isn't so good. The National Institute on Drug Abuse proudly touts the fact that drug use among teen-agers has dropped 18 percent since the early 1980s. When you read the fine print you find out those surveys only include kids in school, says Maria Felix-Ortiz of the psychology department at the University of California at Los Angeles.

In other words, for all we know, drug use among the huge number of dropouts may be at an all-time high. "I suspect there's a serious problem out there," says Ms. Felix-Ortiz.

* Money: Teen-agers, feeling the economic pinch along with their parents, are joining the work force in record numbers. "There's more students working now than ever before," says Susan Papaccio of Colorado State University. In fact, two-thirds of all teen-agers in junior high and high school have jobs.

There's no problem with that -- up to a point. But Ms. Papaccio's research shows that when teens work more than 20 hours a week, their grades start to slide precipitously. "A lot of work is right after school," she says. "They're too tired to do any schoolwork."

* Independence: Rebellion and freedom were the code words of many teen-agers of the 1950s and 1960s, largely because the families they grew up in were intact. But now, with the divorce rate soaring, teens are finding that staying close to one's family isn't so bad after all.

In fact, says Maureen Kenny of Boston College in Chestnut Hill, Mass., kids with strong family ties are better at fending off depression and other emotional problems.

"There's been a revision of the model that says teen-agers need to cut themselves off from their families," says Ms. Kenny. "Now kids are saying: 'I wish there was someone I could be close to.'"

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