Is the teen rebel a dying breed?

Hands with cigarettes

My son has just turned 13 and I made him a card to mark the moment he became a teenager. I put a picture of him as a choir-boy next to a Photoshopped shot of him as a saggy-trousered gangsta rapper - the innocent child mutating into a growling ball of rebellious fury. But a series of recent official statistics are making me question whether the old joke is true any more.

Teenage rebels are not what they were.

Adolescents are increasingly turning their noses up at drugs, booze and fags, with consumption by young people the lowest at almost any time since we started measuring these things.

Drugs: Last week, the Home Office published analysis which suggests the proportion of 16- to 24-year-olds that have ever taken illicit drugs has fallen from 54% in 1998 to 38% now. Among 11- to 15-year-olds the figure has fallen from 29% to 17% in a decade.

Tobacco: Last month, NHS analysis suggested the proportion of English 16- to 19-year-olds who have never smoked has risen from about two-thirds in 1998 to three-quarters now. And the data is just as striking among their younger brothers and sisters. In 1982 most 11- to 15-year-olds (53%) had had a sneaky cigarette at one time or another. Today, just a quarter has ever spluttered over a fag behind the bike sheds.

The birthday card Mark Easton made for his son The card Mark made for his son

Alcohol: It is a similar story with booze. In 1998, 71% of 16- to 24-year-olds questioned said they'd had a drink that week. Today it is 48% - far lower than their parents (about 70%). Among 11- to 15-year-olds there are similar big falls. A decade ago, 26% reported they'd had alcohol in the previous week. Now the data suggests the figure is 13%.

So what is going on? When it comes to smoking and drinking and taking drugs, British teenagers are behaving better than their parents.

That's not to say there are not still real challenges, of course. But the trends are encouraging enough to question whether the archetypal teen is evolving.

The concept of adolescence goes back to the 1900s and the American psychologist G Stanley Hall, who argued that the biological changes associated with puberty drove problematic behaviour. He described it as a period of "storm and stress" when young people demanded freedom but needed discipline.

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No-one is suggesting young people don't misbehave, but teenagers no longer seem to define themselves by wild disobedience”

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The theory was embraced in 1950s Britain, where the establishment had become seriously concerned about the threat from rebellious youth. Along with exotic clothes and loud music, a new word had crossed the Atlantic - teenager. It was a term that inspired the development of a new economically independent sub-culture, simultaneously exciting and terrifying.

Over the next four decades, teddy boys, bikers, mods, rockers, hippies, punks, ravers and grungers put two pubescent fingers up at authority in their own fashion and took delight in watching the staid grown-ups flinch and frown.

Today, though, where are the rebellious sub-cultures?

No-one is suggesting that young people don't misbehave, but teenagers no longer seem to define themselves by wild disobedience. If anything, we are in the middle of a period of increasingly good behaviour.

Teenager in a hoodie in a Bristol shopping centre

A simple measure of "juvenile delinquency" is the number of youngsters who enter the criminal justice system as a result of a police reprimand or conviction. The figure for England and Wales has halved in 10 years - from about 90,000 in 2001 to 45,000 young people in 2011.

There are going to do be many factors that contribute to this trend. Those people working in schools and youth services will argue that their work on smoking, alcohol and drugs is the reason all the arrows are pointing the right way.

The police, probation and social services may claim that they have been responsible for improvements in behaviour.

But I wonder if there is something else going on here. Could it be that teenage rebellion needs to look different to what your mum and dad did? Smoking, boozing, dropping pills and hooliganism - that's so Generation X.

These days, perhaps, adolescent identity is defined more by the use of social media rather than the use of illicit drugs. It might be that texting and messaging, Facebook and Bebo provide the exclusive amity once provided by gangs and musical sub-cultures.

In my day, the classic bored teenager hung around the bus-stop with a few mates and someone produced a packet of 10 and a bottle of cider. Nowadays they are upstairs on the laptop, PS3 or mobile, gossiping and playing and flirting. It is a digital world where grown-ups are not allowed, a playground for the virtual teen rebel.

Beach Boys in concert in 2012

Over the weekend I went to see the Beach Boys perform at Wembley Arena. I don't know whether it made me feel very old or very young. The original teenage boy band put on a good show, but there was something disconcerting about the line-up of pensioners, some of whom bore witness to a misspent youth.

The age profile of the audience was far more mixed than I had expected. There were thousands of teenagers among the baby-boomers. What was going through their minds as they looked at Brian Wilson trying to focus and Mike Love dad-dancing?

I wonder whether the word "teenager" is being redefined and the card I sent my son for his 13th birthday is an example of a prejudice that has had its day.

Mark Easton Article written by Mark Easton Mark Easton Home editor

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  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    43. p pav

    Said pretty girls cousin owned a vineyard in Champagne (alas not Cristal) so as I wasn't paying for it taster even sweeter ( actually it was brut but you know what I mean)

    A bottle of Powers Irish Whiskey is an experience all by itself.

    I was put off Ecstasy when I heard that those krazy kids in Lancashire were injecting it straight into their mouths, its called E-by-gum!

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    Confirms what I thought in terms of my own family. Born in the 60's and it was difficult to rebel when your parents were having their own major rebellion! Nevertheless,my daughter seems to have such a quiet life compared to me and my sisters but she seems quite happy with it so I'll assume rebellion is not a vital part of adolescence.

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    Name Number 6

    Cristal like other fizzy wines from Champagne is rank, people only like it because they think they're supposed to.


    Peasant = Pleb

    We're all plebs together and I'm proud of my pleb status.
    Chewits are popular when people are on ecstasy as is chewing gum. If you do have ecstasy avoid boiled sweets. The sweet flavour will be great but the crunch won't feel right

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    I'm wondering when teens are gonna get a break. If they do it, they're the scum of society. If they don't, they're boring? Get over yourselves.

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    40. p pav
    Cristal + Chewits = peasant

    Now if you had said Spangles.........................

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    Name Number 6

    Pretty girl + Bottle of Cristal + French Farmhouse...


    Sounds like a weekend off.

    Saying that...
    Pretty girl + Bottle of Cristal + French Farmhouse + Class B Drugs + Music + Ice Pops + Chewits + Water = Even Better

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    Name Number 6... you clearly said that narco convos were drivel... music is narco convo plus, and every single artiste you just listed were users.

    Truth is that having the nads to gain an alternative perspective is being crushed these days.

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    The system is trying to keep the kids out of secure units as its too costly even when they have comitted crimes and are a danger to the public, who would be fooled into thinking the government has actually helped rather than massage figures as per usual
    who can afford drugs these days anyway? why else are teens snorting plant food?

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    35. mekajinn

    go listen to Bieber and Adele, I will listen to the Pistols and Nirvana!
    And I'll listen to sham 69 and the Jam and the Clash and the 2 you mention and Pink Floyd and the Stones and Queen and Steely Dan and Led zeppelin and Robert Palmer and Earth Wind and Fire and Supertramp and ELO and Roy Wood and even Adele when she is covering Dylan songs.

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    33. p pav
    Pretty girl + Bottle of Cristal + French Farmhouse = well actually its just a distant memory now but its still a memory.

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    Name Number 6... Are you saying that picking on an easy target in that way is a bit boring?

    But then so is labelling narcotic convos as drivel. Funny how you concentrated on that rather than the drivel of the greatest musical artists in the world. You can go listen to Bieber and Adele, I will listen to the Pistols and Nirvana!

    p pav - good analysis. Now I want some Chewits.

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    I dont know whether the young 'uns in the survey are just very well behaved or skint so cant afford to drink and smoke.

    Either way they are doing well, I wish them luck in keeping to it, they'll need it considering the jobs outlook, poor sods

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    Name Number 6

    The drivel talk stops after the first few times. You learn to enjoy the feeling and the atmosphere in a different way not to mention how the music sounds better.

    Class A drugs (Coke) + Alcohol + Nicotine = Fighting + Trouble + Sadness

    Class B Drugs + Music + Ice Pops + Chewits + Water = Everybody's Loving It

    Teenager + Computer + Social Media + X-Factor = Boring

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    31. mekajinn
    Picking up on a typo is real heavy man.

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    @29... so smoking weed makes you talk drivel that only other users find interesting?

    Such outpourings as those of the Beatles... Rolling Stones... Pink Floyd... Bob Marley... etcetera.

    Perhaps some narcotic experimentation would help you realise the difference between "there", "their" and "they're" ;)

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    A bit weird but everything seems sterile now.The advent of internet has played a major part, giving youngsters the firepower of information they need to learn about sex,drugs and booze rather than actually doing it and making mistakes.Also the laws.Legal and cultural change has encouraged the clampdown on underage and illegal this and that.What remain are the dangerous few that tarnish the many.

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    27. p pav

    Weed, ecstasy (the real E) and mushrooms/acid are where it's at if you want to have a decent party.
    No there not, they only allow you to talk endless drivel that only other users find interesting.

    Having said that, whatever floats your boat I suppose.

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    kids today... they do gigs in WINE BARS... We have created a generation of tame drones that do as they are told and don't think for themselves!!!

    And the worst thing is that this is exactly what most people their parents' ages wanted... no!

    Kids should rebel, and they should think for themselves... and make anti social music and not do gigs in WINE BARS... WHAT IS THE POINT!??!!?

  • Comment number 27.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    21. p pav
    I bet your a barrel of fun at parties.


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