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 245.

    #the older you get the rebelion gets worse just ask your kids

  • rate this

    Comment number 244.

    @ No 6

    Fancy a party?
    Old skool style.

  • rate this

    Comment number 243.

    Parents wil be wise to remember

    "there are lies, damn lies and then there are statistics"

    I'm sure the rule of thumb still applies- If you come from a working class area you abuse drugs, but if you come from a middle class family you are just experimenting.

  • rate this

    Comment number 242.

    Although the youth of today are causing less trouble on the streets committing crime and indulging in anti-social behaviour they do seem to have become a lot less intelligent even with technology. Social media unfortunately does not educated them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 241.

    Teenagers these days are trapped indoors from very young as there is so much fear of them going outside, this somewhat limits the possibility of rebellion.

    When I was a teenager we regular got questionaires on our use of drugs, alcohol, etc. It was very common to lie. Maybe teenagers these days are a bit more truthful than we care to imagine.

  • rate this

    Comment number 240.

    Teenagers behaviour these days is no different to what it was 20 years ago. We took more drugs and hardly drank, they drink more and take less drugs. It's nothing to do with class (as most of the lefties on the BBC website would have us believe) It's nothing to do with upbringing or money. It's about fashion. It was when we were all necking god knows what every night at a rave and it is now.

  • rate this

    Comment number 239.

    "They **** you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but they do. They fill you with the faults they had and add some extra, just for you" . . . except today's kids are wiser than my generation and are leaving the faults with the parents. My sons' friends from comprehensive are fantastic - full of hope and ambition. But the media's only interested in kids with knives, drugs, booze and asbos.

  • rate this

    Comment number 238.

    The article seems to paint the picture that rebellion is bad.

    Rebellion is good.

    All we've learnt from the past 15 years is that you build a good enough PR machine and feed teenagers enough distractions and, rather than standing up for themselves, they mindlessly prepare themselves for a lifetime of exploitation.

  • rate this

    Comment number 237.

    Those who are 16-24 and not in education, employment or training, need something to be proud of, need a sense of achievement, a sense of self worth, and a sense of direction. National Conscription would do all of these things. At the same time, they could learn a trade/skill like engineering. it would boost the numbers of the Reservists and the TA.

  • rate this

    Comment number 236.

    I blame the rising costs of our teenager's habits. cigarettes have gone up from like £1.50 to £3.50 for 10-deck, alcohol has gone up from about £1 a pint to £3.50 a pint, and a £20-bag of cannabis has nearly halved in weight.

  • rate this

    Comment number 235.

    Keep up Mark. The trend of children behaving better than their parents was brilliantly portrayed in Absolutely Fabulous, how long ago?

    But you are right that it has nothing to do with social services and everything to do with fashion - which is just a response to the social environment.It was post-war austerity, then 60s/70s excess and now it is back to austerity again. Simpelz.

  • rate this

    Comment number 234.

    I am afraid I find the average youngster I come into contact with to be pleasant enough but feckless and shallow. The unchallenging schoolwork and easy life many have had seems to have created a Stepford teenager. Of all the things I feel most disappointed about is the lack of spark and cant be bothered attitude. Great fodder for the factories and offices of the future.
    Pure drones.

  • rate this

    Comment number 233.

    Yeah,there's less to nick from me mam's purse and me da only buys 10 fags a day now and watches them like a hawk.

  • rate this

    Comment number 232.


    Yes. Like I said
    If smoked during puberty. . . . .

  • rate this

    Comment number 231.

    From what I can gather they are all sending photographs of their genitals to each other by smart phone, from the age of about 14 onwards.
    Then they are completely baffled when they are on the sex offenders register aged 18 for still doing it!

    But we don't know anything so its not our fault..this is their own virtual world where we don't go.

  • rate this

    Comment number 230.

    1 Hour ago

    Heroin and cocaine destroy lives and families and the future of any children involved.

    Weed, if smoked during puberty can affect the natural chemical changes in the brain. It does not destroy people like the fore mentioned.'

    Oh yeah? Try telling that to families torn apart by cannaboid psychoisis.

  • rate this

    Comment number 229.

    This is an arguement which will go on forever. i myself am a 23yr old smoker with two kids who drinks mainly on a friday night at a pub with mostly the older generation. the youngsters these days tend to go clubbing its the pubs im worried about. The youth of today will say we learned from the older generations mistakes i just think a lot more of it goes under the radar. It will be never ending.

  • rate this

    Comment number 228.

    Mark obviously does not come from my area!!!

    Boy racers ,drug takers, and teenage smokers are rife!!!!

    Could we do a house swap???

  • rate this

    Comment number 227.

    Yet another shocking example of falling standards...
    When I was a young 'un we knew hot to get totally caned properly!
    The youth of today are mere light weights and just can't handle it....
    There should be an official inquiry into this, or maybe even a Royal Commission seeing as Princess Margaret was a trail blazer in the field back in the day....

  • rate this

    Comment number 226.

    An article that comes across as rather naive,possibly because of its blatantly middle class source.In every city teens are behaving as badly,or typically rather,as they always have-smoking,criminal damage,intimidation and the latest craze,former legal high M-CAT.There'll always be an underclass council estate youth militia who'll never have the iPod,laptop in the bedroom upstairs upbringing.


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