Human behavior is very much like the rug that produces a new lump whenever you flatten an old one. Every time we appear to solve one problem affecting how we live, work or think, it’s often at the cost of precipitating yet another problem to take its place. If we stop working overtime to preserve our marriage, it can be at the cost of that promotion we’d been gunning for, and if we quit smoking, it can often result in us gaining a few extra pounds. If nothing else, this perennial exchange of one issue for another teaches us an important life lesson: that we never completely rid ourselves of problems, but merely redistribute them according to our changing values and preferences.
This is a valuable lesson to learn in life, but it nonetheless seem to have been forgotten by the various outlets reporting on this year’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey. Conducted by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, it found that teens in America are smoking less, having less sex, and drinking less soda. More specifically, only 11% of 14-18 year olds smoke in 2015, down from the 28% of 1991, whereas sexual activity has decreased from 38% to 30% over the same period of time. It seems, then, that teenagers in the US are becoming more responsible and health-conscious, as recognized by Bill Albert of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, who remarked on the news with the quip, “I think you can call this the cautious generation.”
Still, even if certain websites are running such headlines as “The kids are alright,” this development is in fact no indication that teenagers are indeed more cautious, more responsible, or ‘alright.’ While a drop in smoking and underage sex is to be welcomed, this drop hasn’t come about because young people have started thinking more deeply about their actions and have become more informed as to their damaging consequences. On the contrary, it’s arisen as a result of cultural and economic changes which have spared teenagers from some of the issues they used to face when growing up, but have forced upon them a whole new set of quandaries that are no less harmful.
One of the culprits in these changes was identified earlier this year when The Daily Telegraph ran an article about the precipitous drop in teenage pregnancies in the United Kingdom. The number of pregnancies among girls under 18 had almost halved since 2007, and while relevant NGOs and charities speculated that increasing access to sex education and contraception had played some role in this 45% plunge, researchers noted that it coincided very neatly with the emergence and rise of social media. As Prof. David Paton of Nottingham University Business School told the paper, “People [appear to be] spending time at home – rather than sitting at bus stops with a bottle of vodka they are doing it remotely with their friends.” That is, as social media has grown in popularity and usage, teenagers have been going out less, and because they’ve been going out less they’ve had less opportunity to have sex with each other and engage in other less-than innocent behavior.
This corroborates research which has shown that social media is diminishing the time we have for other people in a face-to-face setting. In a 2014 survey taken by UCLA, for instance, it was found that the percentage of college freshman socializing with their friends for more than 16 hours a week had dropped from 37% in 1987 to 18% in 2014, while the percentage of students who use social media for more than six hours or more each week had risen from 18.9% in 2007 to 27.2% in 2014. What this implies is that, rather than becoming more conscientious and sensible, teenagers have simply been hanging out in person less and on Facebook more, where it’s not possible for them to sleep with each other or to smoke together
Social networking sites have, therefore, helped some of them to kick the habit of certain unhealthy activities, yet conversely it’s introduced various unhealthy implications of its own. One 2013 study published in the Computers in Human Behavior journal discovered that Facebook use is associated with “more clinical symptoms of bipolar-mania, narcissism and histrionic personality disorder,” while a highly cited PLOS ONE paper from 2013 revealed that the “more [people] used Facebook over two-weeks, the more their life satisfaction levels declined over time.” In both these cases and more, social media use was determined to be significantly problematic, a fact which undercuts any notion that declining levels of teenage sex and smoking are proof that teenagers are healthier now than they were two or more decades ago. As the above studies suggest, they’re not really healthier in any absolute sense; they’ve simply swapped one set of problems for another.
More proof that the decline in smoking, sex and soda (as well as pregnancies) isn’t the result of increased thoughtfulness and care among teenagers comes with a closer reading of the Youth Risk Behavior Survey. While celebrating the fact that teens are less sexually active, it also notes that when they do have sex, they’re increasingly eschewing contraceptives. From 63% in 2003, only 57% of respondents now use condoms, a slip which hints that their growing ‘abstinence’ is driven less by a strengthened sense of health or responsibility and more by a lack of opportunity.
Put differently, their attitudes haven’t changed so much as their circumstances and culture, a hypothesis supported by the knowledge that pornography consumption increased among young adults between 1973 and 2012. What’s particularly interesting about this growth was that it wasn’t accompanied by a parallel change in moral beliefs and convictions, in that young people’s views on whether porn should be legal had remained static, despite their increasing use of it. Once again, this affirms that evolving morals aren’t responsible for seemingly evolving behavior, and once again, this ‘migration’ from actual sex to virtual, passive sex brings its own host of problems, including possible erectile dysfunction and difficulties maintaining relationships.
Ultimately, this is why it would be unwise to be too complacent or self-congratulatory as a society when it comes to the news that teenagers are involving themselves less in destructive pastimes. They may have reduced their quota of conspicuously harmful activities, yet in the main they’ve traded said activities for those that are harmful in subtler, more insidious ways. They may have sex less and smoke less, but this is largely because they’re more overworked, more stressed and depressed, less rested, and often more isolated. Of course, their switch from sex, drugs and rock’n’roll to social media and highly pressurized studies isn’t all bad, but as a closer look at the complexities of their situation reveals, it isn’t all good either. Then again, it may be good for a society that values straight-laced and anxious kids over rebellious ones, not that such a valuation is good for society itself.