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 105.


    Yes, it does. Heroin remains the drug seen as the 'hardest' out there. Most of the people who do dabble with a bit of weed or a couple of pills wouldn't even consider shooting up.

    It's pretty much a concious decision to enter a life from which there is no easy way back.

    Alcohol, conversely, is common and acceptable, and leads to more antisocial behaviour than any other single cause.

  • rate this

    Comment number 104.

    I went and saw the Beach Boy about 7 years ago or so and I'm only 22. I really enjoyed them. But then I suppose I've never been a teenage rebel...

  • rate this

    Comment number 103.

    99.FjB - "....Do you seriously believe that alcohol causes more harm to society than the heroin trade? Really?"

    Yes, evidence below (within the story is a link to the actual study). Do you have any evidence to argue otherwise?

  • rate this

    Comment number 102.

    Of course there are less drugs taken nowadays! Have you seen the latest price for good hash? Everyone has to tighten their belt nowadays.

  • rate this

    Comment number 101.

    There never has been a homogenous singular description of teenagers, it is all stereotyping. Some were/are rebellious , some were/are not.
    Teenagers then and now search for their own identify, that is what rebellion was, finding themselves rather than taking on their parents idea of who they were. Today people have more choice and people are more accepting of different, so few think it rebellious.

  • rate this

    Comment number 100.

    Kids nowadays are too fat and lazy to be rebels

  • rate this

    Comment number 99.


    Do you seriously believe that alcohol causes more harm to society than the heroin trade? Really?

  • rate this

    Comment number 98.

    Strange how as a 16 year old my friends and I went to the pub BUT we kept our 'heads down' so we didnt get noticed and thrown out. My grandaughter, aged 18 doesnt got out much at all - spends most of her evenings after work, on Xbox. Suggesting she may like to go out for a drink with her friends is like 'duh, sex-box time' (I guess that sex-bex = XBox !!)

  • rate this

    Comment number 97.

    Television is the modern drug that brainwashes people. As for less drugs and alcohol?- the answer is no, looking at my high street on any particular evening.

  • rate this

    Comment number 96.

    "@ spindoctor 58
    I was a 60's kid and never actually knew anyone that took drugs,

    but was happy to "grow up "and yes I DID drink and smoke & stopped"

    News flash! Alcohol and tobacco are drugs!

  • rate this

    Comment number 95.

    People saying that are English skills is going down just think who taught us !

  • rate this

    Comment number 94.

    Is "rebellion" quite the right word for the behaviour of some/many teenagers in decades gone by? After all, they/we took great care to keep smoking, drinking, drug use and sexual activity concealed from their/our parents - we knew they would disapprove, and we did not want to be seen to be rebelling. Why go looking for trouble?

  • rate this

    Comment number 93.

    Kids rebel by being different to their parents. Perhaps the logical rebellion against a generation of rebels is to be something different.

  • rate this

    Comment number 92.

    72 Johnno

    “We are not animals strangely enough” Yes you are. Homo sapiens (Humans) fill all the criteria for being animals. This is why we are classed as being part of the taxonomic Kingdom "Animalia" rather than one off by ourselves. There is no shame in that, just reality.

  • rate this

    Comment number 91.

    Let us not forget however that there in one drug that is still too over used, albeit slightly less over used in todays youngsters than their parents & grand parents.....

    ....yes, alcohol is legal, but it is still a DRUG, & it causes more harm in society than any illegal drug does.....

  • rate this

    Comment number 90.

    @77 Think
    There was a report only last week about the enormous reduction in hooliganism at football matches (off the field). Badly behaved people are in the minority and the majority is getting bigger.

  • rate this

    Comment number 89.

    I obviously don't know what the past was like, but being 25, a non smoker who has never taken drugs and would prefer to drive and be taxi rather than have a drink, I think culture has changed in many ways so don't always agree with standalone statistics. There are various effects taking place; the safety culture we live in, protective parents, access to more comprehensive information online etc...

  • rate this

    Comment number 88.

    I am the oldest child in my house, aged 16 and a half. I believe that even a few years has changed especially where I live anyway. Last year by being made to sit through cringe-worthy east sussex county council videos on drink and drugs I noticed a different attitude towards them, for example this video was made when I was about 12, and the people in it seemed so much less educated in the dangers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 87.

    What a depressing read. drugs. drinking and unprotected are the best part of being young. you have a lot of years in front of you to be boring .

  • rate this

    Comment number 86.

    I believe things are changing. I think it's the older generation that smoke weed and have a tendancy to dabble in other things. I know loads of 40 somethings that are more rebellious than my teens.

    My kids hate the label their generation are being tarred with. Mine don't smoke, but like a drink when they go out at w'ends. . . . . Even then they're labelled 'binge drinkers'!


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