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.

Start Quote

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

End Quote

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

Boxing Day Family Puzzler 2014

My Boxing Day Puzzler is specifically designed to foil the resident clever-clogs and give hope to those struggling to focus after the indulgence of Christmas Day.

Read full article

More on This Story


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 345.

    Teenagers appear to be turning in to Saffy from Ab Fab... Bizzare! Does it mean that they'll suffer with their kids though?

  • rate this

    Comment number 344.

    You can't compare figures on smoking and alcohol without taking into account changes in their availability to young people. In 1998 it was legal for 16 and 17 year olds to purchase cigarettes, so it's not surprising that more of them smoked. And although it was illegal, it used to be much easier to be served alcohol underage.

  • rate this

    Comment number 343.

    333. "young people these day are lame.. and so unbelievably ugly. Have you seem them. Fat dour miserable kids with no imagination but to think up new pathetic text faces. What a waste!!!"

    Are you really complaining that children aren't as sexy as they used to be?

  • rate this

    Comment number 342.

    Less kids smoking = less tax revenue for the government.
    Less kids drinking = less tax revenue for the government.

    Maybe kids have just got smarter and figured out if you really want to cause problems, cut off the money to those you are rebelling against.

    Good news there are likely to be less addicts in the next generation.

  • rate this

    Comment number 341.

    Adolescents are turning to illicit drugs more and more. With the increasing taxes on alcohol and rising prices in the pubs, it costs a meer fraction of the price for an adolescent to get high on a vast majority of illegal drugs compared to getting drunk on alcohol. The government can't tax something that is illegal...

  • rate this

    Comment number 340.

    @312 Sidney

    Because he's obviously a teen, and quite a bright one at that. Can't you handle that???'

    Can't you see the joke?

  • rate this

    Comment number 339.

    330. Sidney Monroe

    Emphasis on "smoking" a joint. Cannabis itself is not harmful - the fact your called it more cancerous than 10 cigarettes is laughable as it has been shown to reduce the number of cancerous cells in the human body. Cannabis taken without the inhalation of harmful smoke causes no such cancerous effects.

  • rate this

    Comment number 338.

    Ah, so you would have us living under a totalitarian regime, heavily influenced by religious dogma?

    Sounds like progress...

    I propose we build a democracy whereby policies are based on objectivity; objectivity being supplied by scientific research and empirical data.

    Propaganda is so pre-Google.

  • rate this

    Comment number 337.

    I am certain that overall young people are less wild than before. Of course in some areas its gone the other way and wildness is replaced with gang culture., and the drink culture is still with us.
    Teens generally come across as more serious, and more dedicated and more materialistic. More grown up is the phrase that comes to mind. I suspect the internet and media have had a hand in this.

  • rate this

    Comment number 336.


    "Alas the modern child is a moron"

    This comment was not removed. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 335.

    Many teenagers seem to be incredibly hard working, far more than when I was young, and also very caring and aware of the world around them. I really respect some of my friends teenage offspring.
    Also many seem to be lazy, loose jobs because they won't get up, don't want to work, drop sprogs on benefits, thinks that were really looked down on when I was young.
    More in both extremes I'd say.

  • rate this

    Comment number 334.

    Those kids who rioted last year were being rebellious.

  • rate this

    Comment number 333.

    young people these day are lame.. and so unbelievably ugly. Have you seem them. Fat dour miserable kids with no imagination but to think up new pathetic text faces. What a waste!!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 332.

    53. The Sex Pistols had their own Cowell in Malcolm McLaren. That's why they were famous. These days, the rebellion in music is as much in denying yourself to those devils as anything. Trust me, there's music going around the toilet circuit every night that makes the Sex Pistols look like fwuffy bah-lambs.

  • rate this

    Comment number 331.

    @323 Parallel World

    Maybe kids would talk to us if we didn't talk AT them instead of to them. . . . . . . and maybe actually LISTENING to them instead of just spouting off?

  • rate this

    Comment number 330.

    304.A Very Concerned Teen
    4 Minutes ago .' Drugs such as cannabis and lsd actually cause far less physical damage to the human body and can provide a life-enriching experiences that change your perception of the world.'

    Ever met anyone who has taken more than 100 LSD trips? Normal person? Cannabis causes mental illness and smoking a joint is more cancerous than ten cigarettes.

  • rate this

    Comment number 329.

    Uh yeah, no, maybe?

    Why is this a HYS? But seriously people don't stay the same forever, I used to hate doing certain things in my childhood but now being a grown up I tend to do things for myself.

  • rate this

    Comment number 328.

    I didn't realise posting facts about the relative harm of drugs contravened house rules. Another reason why the youth of today are seemingly unrebellious - we've been brought up in an environment which encourages misinformation and pandering to the ideals of the masses.

  • rate this

    Comment number 327.

    Obviously less kids smoke today, its stoptober.

  • rate this

    Comment number 326.

    Being a teenager..I don't smoke & I don't take drugs..but I am a heavy drinker. I will drink 3 or 4 times a week. Plenty of people still take drugs and smoke, that isn't changing. Problem with teenagers including me is that we have nothing better to do.I can't go uni because of the tuition fee's,simply can't afford to take that debt on. Instead I have a meeting at Job Center tommorow for JSA.


Page 10 of 27



BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.