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 225.

    Teenagers have been bombarded with social media sites and rubbish TV and finally it has taken effect. Most teens would rather be stuck in front of a computer or on their phone than out on the streets socialising and making a nuisance of themselves. This appears to us to be a rather boring generation but they may consider talking gossip on the internet as the height of civil disobedience.

  • rate this

    Comment number 224.

    I have to agree with some posts on the danger of 'social' media eroding the ability of young people to engage in social interaction. As a teacher I see lots of bright young people who don't know how to express their emotions or deal with anger or fear except by lashing out, verbally or physically. They haven't any notion of dignity and think respect = fear

  • rate this

    Comment number 223.

    You see the four kids on the street corner who are smoking, drinking and causing trouble. You don't see the other twenty-five in their school class who are at home on Twitter, out playing sport or otherwise being normal teenagers but generally behaving well.

    It's no surprise that we tend to overestimate the bad behaviour of teenagers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 222.

    Economically speaking, this is really bad...

    No more drinkers, no more smokers and no more boy racers = less duty revenue on alcohol, cigarettes and petrol!

    If they raise VAT due to a loss of duty revenue on the above, then we all know who to blame...

    Osborne must be cursing this new generation of health freaks.

  • rate this

    Comment number 221.

    I do not think that much has changed apart from children being better at lying than their parents. As someone who took part in a survey such as this when i was younger and lied through my teeth about never having smoked drank or taken drugs...

  • rate this

    Comment number 220.

    I think the biggest worry these days is the use of Pornography and it's effects on Teenagers especially with High Speed internet available. Erectile Dysfunction, social anxiety, general anxiety and internet addiction all being very detrimental to development.

  • rate this

    Comment number 219.

    The teen rebel was a marketing ploy to get the working teens money and the drug dealers caught on. Just the same as the Beach Boys was a fabricated band for a fabricated "rebel" young crowd. Now they have changed for the growing old population only the drug dealers they use are from the NHS. The teen rebel fashion will never die too profitable but the child doing the drugs will.

  • rate this

    Comment number 218.

    Since 1998 there has been much stricter age verification enforced for purchasing Alcohol and Tobacco. The smoking age even going up from 16-18.

    This is bound to be a factor as 14/15 year olds can no longer get their older looking mates to buy for them. Yes they will still find ways to rebel and get alcohol but when it's not as easily available they will use it less frequently

  • rate this

    Comment number 217.

    Q: Is the teen rebel a dying breed?

    A: No, we have simply learned from all your mistakes. Thanks.

    And a quick aside: Anonymity, the internet, and e-currency make us what we are.

  • rate this

    Comment number 216.


    Wow you sound like such a rebel!

  • rate this

    Comment number 215.

    You know, the study perhaps has a point at least where smoking is concerned. Thinking about how many people I work with, and how many of them smoke...with the exception of one lad, none of the smokers are 'young'.

  • rate this

    Comment number 214.

    You can tell this article was written by someone who hasn't been a teen for a while. Bebo? Barely anyone uses Bebo anymore, and most of those that did are now in their early twenties. Anyway, most teens have always been mocked, bullied, misunderstood and ignored by most adults. The irony being that most teens actually have a better understanding of the world that most adults do.

  • rate this

    Comment number 213.

    This debate is perpetually going on, and it seems that the arguments are always pretty cyclical.

    Check out IAI's video on Drug Culture which contextualises the issue and reminds us that alcohol, drugs and tobacco has historically existed in somewhat honored places in society.

  • rate this

    Comment number 212.

    It seems yet again we have an opportunity to be proud of our young people, and instead the commentators below are cynical.

    Maybe its the 'grown-ups' in society that have a problem, and we need to be more careful about the type of adulthood we are modelling to a generation doing pretty well by themselves.

  • rate this

    Comment number 211.

    When the teenager was invented as a social group post war when they had cash to spend and a culture to make it was brand new. Through time and my time it has always been encouraged as the rebellious time.. thing is all these rebels either died or grew old. Maybe the real rebellion here is not doing what is expected of them as dictated by previous generations banging on about how their youth was.

  • rate this

    Comment number 210.

    the media and the net make it easy to speak to and learn about differnt people and things going on around the world. if a teenager hears more about the effects of drugs or alcohol on people, e.g they read online about someone dying of a OD, see a TV show where people thier age are gets hospitalized due to binge drinking, or even hear from a person across the world about thier bad experiences,

  • rate this

    Comment number 209.

    Your metrics are wrong. They are all hackers and Trolls on Facebook and Twitter.

  • rate this

    Comment number 208.

    Agree teens of today are wiser & probably cover their tracks better.

    What hope do they have with several MPs admitting to taking drugs as younsters.

    As Tulisa sings - Forgive us for what we have done but we're young, we're young, we're young.

  • rate this

    Comment number 207.

    Something to bemoan here also? What affects them all is a process of de-socialisation and the pressure to vacate public space, such has been the impact of the perceived threat of and to young people peddled by the Levesonian unholy trinity of the politicians, the police and the media. Most young people simply can’t be doing with the hassle. An individualising education drives the same.

  • rate this

    Comment number 206.

    What this shows is how prevalent various types of brainwashing are, people now gets highs from things like owning the latest iPhone or simply spending money. It will take a while for the damage this causes to mount up, but the end result will be a lot of very poor uneducated dysfunctional people forming the core of a new slave class.


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