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 525.

    This generation of youths are more aware of the risk of alcohol and drug abuse. The educational system has proven successful and hope of mankind has been restored.

  • rate this

    Comment number 524.

    Some teenagers seem to think it's rebellious to swear (badly) on YouTube and post vacuous messages on Facebook. It's really not.

  • rate this

    Comment number 523.

    I do wish these Teenagers would take their rebelling seriously.

  • rate this

    Comment number 522.

    Why are all the comments I've read a bunch of old people either moaning about teenagers or society? I turn 21 in November so was a teenager not long ago and I never felt the need to rebel, not because of market brain washing or the government, but because I didn't want to. I enjoyed my teenage life and now I'm enjoying the start of adulthood at university trying to make a better life for myself.

  • rate this

    Comment number 521.

    It has to be a good thing that drug and alcohol abuse is down among young people. But it is not clear that we are any less selfish: materialism, as well as hedonism, is a trap. Only through turning to God can we become the people we are truly meant to be.

  • rate this

    Comment number 520.

    I think they are and it's reality Tv which is helping. They can see that hard work and determination can get anyone success. This combined with Internet which gives them the world has made them the best generation yet.

  • rate this

    Comment number 519.

    I think it's possible that young people look at the less attractive aspects of the behaviour of their parents (even grandparents now) and think: that's not for me; I can see just pleasing yourself is a fairly shallow approach to life that is selfish and destructive (to your own health and other people).

  • rate this

    Comment number 518.

    when i was a teen you could go to the pub have 8 pints and buy 10 ciggies all for under £3.00 which was about 8% of my today couldnt afford to go out of an evening and spend less than £60.00 about 25% of minimum wage...they just cant afford to be rebels

  • rate this

    Comment number 517.

    What a surprise that society seems to be on the down trend !

    Thirty years of marketing (brainwashing) of the population by big corporates. Only money matters. And when YOU have it, make sure you keep the OTHERS down.

    Education is a tick in a box.

    If YOU want it, steal it or take it (and that's those in 'charge').

    It is a wonder that some young people survive the process to produce anything.

  • rate this

    Comment number 516.

    Music used to be one way rebellious teenagers used and fuelled their anger. Rock'n'roll, The Beatles & The Stones, Heavy Metal, Punk, New Wave, Acieedd, Madchester, Rap, Garage, Grunge....

    Simon Cowell and manufactured pap doesn't really help you rebel.

  • Comment number 515.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 514.

    I would imagine that teenagers today are far too busy texting, facebooking, tweeting and watching explicit videos online to bother having an opinion on anything.

  • rate this

    Comment number 513.

    Seems to me that teenagers like the rest of society have become more polarised with those that take themselves very seriously who must achieve and wouldnt be seen dead with fags etc and those that are quite happy to have a beer & smoke and worry about it tomorrow. Personally I think the latter group will probably live longer ironically.

  • rate this

    Comment number 512.

    Teenagers rebel against behaving the way their parents do. Could it be then that while we have chav 30-somethings acting as though they are still 21, their 13 year old kids despair at their parents behaviour the way all teenagers do and are therefore conducting themselves in a better manner?

  • Comment number 511.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 510.

    The teenager of today says no to booze and drugs, but loves a heavily buttered scone.

  • rate this

    Comment number 509.

    As a 24 yr old I have witnessed the change first hand, it's simply because consoles are more fun. 10 years ago, when I was 14 we would walk around the streets extremely bored, painfully bored, it's no wonder we caused trouble!

  • rate this

    Comment number 508.

    Fewer young people having a sneaky cigarette. Is this a sign that 11 - 14 year olds are turning their back on rebellion? Perhaps, BUT .....
    Could it be that fewer parents are smoking? The health warnings are getting through? Cigarettes are relatively more expensive? Shopkeepers are more careful about whom they sell to?
    Listen to progs like More or Less before you use stats in this way again.

  • rate this

    Comment number 507.

    Youth of today are actually well informed as to the world situation though to rebell like we did in the 60's would only have them end up in jail. over the years goverments have brought in laws to quell any form of dissent.
    The political elite does everything it can to dumb down the youth so they do not become uppity.

  • rate this

    Comment number 506.

    Everything goes around in circles and, just as kids rebelled against authority when I was a lad, there comes a moment in time when those involved tire of a particular way of life and seek to change it for something different.

    That moment is called growing up.


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