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, Home editor Article written by Mark Easton Mark Easton Home editor

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  • rate this

    Comment number 205.

    maybe it depends on where you come from.
    some of the teens up the rhondda,in my neck of the woods,are not even human.They wouldn't know about respecting the neighbourhood if their lives deepended on it.They love killing cats and dogs(found plenty stuffed into bags)and generally being disgusting to everyone they come across.I bet they end up in prison or on the dole./selling drugs.

  • rate this

    Comment number 204.

    They still rebel but now they do it like silent Ninjas=TRUE.
    The kids aint stupid and they THINK for themselves.
    Slipping under the RADAR like a stealth Bomber.

    You dont have to be over the top to be a rebel.
    They have figured out this=Nobody bothers you if you use your BRAIN.

  • rate this

    Comment number 203.

    ...or they are getting better at lying

  • rate this

    Comment number 202.

    The tobacco smoking part, look at the paper that the facts are taken from and look at figure 2.1, you can see that the prevalence of smoking from all age groups from 1980 and 2010 has drastically fallen, and in particular the older age groups (as opposed to the younger ones), which can be put down to more information being available on the harms as opposed to anything to do with rebellion...

  • rate this

    Comment number 201.

    (this should have been first comment, sorry, im new here! :P)as a 17 year old, i think that this could be down to many reasons, from the fact that teenagers now have access to a lot more information, opinions and facts about these sorts of things,

  • rate this

    Comment number 200.

    In the future there will be a price to pay for the changes happening now. Drug use is lower (illegal) but depression is steadily rising, why, because people are not happy living in a virtual world. To get drugs you have to meet people and it isn't something someone would discuss on-line so this reduces use but the price may be very high. Social problems will grow from this and damage thousands.

  • rate this

    Comment number 199.

    I knew that the Teletubbies would lead to a generation of children growing up to be numb in the brain..

  • rate this

    Comment number 198.

    Let's all celebrate life getting more boring!!!

    Will the powers that be in this country be happy before we all sit around singing Kum By Yah of an evening?

  • rate this

    Comment number 197.

    It probably has a lot to do with the cost of things these days. I cant see how anyone who doesnt have a job can afford to spend over £8 on a pack of fags. Let alone £40 for a gram of coke.

  • rate this

    Comment number 196.

    Being rebellious as a teenager never meant taking drugs to me, i spent my teenage years listening to straight edge hardcore punk (anti drink and drugs) and going to charity concerts for animal rights and womens rights while all around my generation went to house parties and took Ecstasy and experimented. It became the norm and wasn't remotely rebellious or dangerous to me.

  • rate this

    Comment number 195.

    193. "Maybe our youngsters can see the state of some of we oldies and have wised up... Steve Strange, Ozzy Osborne can barely string a sentence together"

    The impression I got of drugs from music was that they either kill you at 27 or pickle your organs so that you live forever. Look at Keith Richards. Or Iggy Pop, who looks healthier at 92 than I do at 30!

  • rate this

    Comment number 194.

    You can not use the amounts of teenagers, in the criminal justice system, as a measure of juvenile delinquency. I know from personal experience, it's nearly impossible to get the police, to do anything about unacceptable behaviour. That said the downward trends, in drug, alcohol and tobacco are positive.

  • rate this

    Comment number 193.

    Maybe our youngsters can see the state of some of we oldies and have wised up... Steve Strange, Ozzy Osborne can barely string a sentence together -
    Besides my kids & their friends are all trying to get abroad to work for a better life, they all know that a drug conviction will blot their copy book for getting into Oz/US especially.The world is more accessible to them so why ruin your chances?

  • rate this

    Comment number 192.

    I have no idea what you're talking about, as I've never said it's teenagers who are the drug dealers...

    Believe me, I'm not under the impression that a 13 year old is the king pin behind the murky world of organised drug crime.

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    Comment number 191.

    No wonder pop-music is such rubbish now. The "War on Drugs" is another undesirable, and largely self serving, american idea we have been forced to take up.

  • rate this

    Comment number 190.

    The use of social media has changed peoples behaviours in the way they socialise and different values change the way they want to feel. Cannabis and heroin have less users as they are not the drug of choice for people who want to feel stimulated. Alcohol has declined due to the social interaction taking place on-line not down the pub. Legal highs are the lions share of drugs now.

  • rate this

    Comment number 189.

    152. Actually, checking the article again: you're crediting the coalition for changes in drug taking between 1998 and 2008!?


  • rate this

    Comment number 188.

    (cont...)of course, teenagers are still rebelling, they're just finding differnt ways that are perhaps not as bad for thier health, and not already-been-done things that they cant get away with anyway cos their parents have been there and done that :) (for reference, i have smoked, but dont now, and drink on occasion, ...mostly...responsibly! :P)

  • rate this

    Comment number 187.


    Can teens even afford to be dealers? Were talking teens here, not Drug Barons

  • rate this

    Comment number 186.

    Maybe it's all down to great parenting - after all, everyone's quick to blame the parents when things go wrong!

    Seriously, it's probably a combination of all the things mentioned in the article, but also parents should take a lot of the credit.


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