The Teens They Are A-Changin'

One of the easiest traps to fall into when thinking about teens is to think back to your own teen years for guidance or inspiration. Those halcyon days of yesteryear may be wonderful to reflect on and reminisce about with friends but, trust me, they aren’t going to help you understand the current crop of teens. Why? Because the teen experience changes all the time. 

In some ways things have stopped changing as much as they used to. When I was a kid I couldn’t really identify with my parents’ taste in clothes or music or pop culture. My own teen children don’t seem that different to where I was 30 years ago. (Damn, damn, damn, I just did it myself!) The truth is, they experience things very differently than I did at their age and to forget that is to risk doing really stupid things. 

There are some very obvious things that have changed from one generation to the next. Technology, clearly, has changed a lot. Mobile, which has completely redefined our world, is less than a decade old. The Internet as a popular medium is less than 25 years old. Tech will continue to race ahead but think about other some of the other, more subtle changes. The media mix, for example, or going to the movies, or getting together with friends. All of these things have changed in ways that reframe the teen experience.



To try to a list of all the ways things have changed would be impossible so collected a handful of representative examples. It’s difficult to find exact apples-to-apples comparisons, so many of the stats included below should be viewed as directional. They illustrate broad changes in trends over time. Despite this, I think you’ll get the point.

  • Driving The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that, in 1996, 85% of high school seniors had their driver’s license. According to AAA, in 2014, only 54% of teens get their license by the time they are 18. The freedom of the open road just isn’t what it was. In part, the drop in driving rates is attributed to the recession; but many teens also report not needing to drive.
  • Summer employment In 1994, almost 55% of teens had summer jobs. Today that number is just under 35%. That’s a pretty big drop and one that impacts not only teen income but also the amount of idle time available to kids, and you know what they say about idle hands ...
  • Marijuana use In 1996, the National Institute of Drug Abuse reported that 49.6% of high school seniors had used marijuana. In 2013, 41.3% of all high school students reported having smoked marijuana. This gradual decline is seen in virtually all substance categories. Cigarette smoking, for example, was reported by 65% of high school seniors in 1996 but by 2013 only 41% of high school students had ever even tried a cigarette.
  • Sex In 1996, a Kaiser Family Foundation survey found 29% of kids between 12 and 18 reported having had sex. Research by the Department of Health and Human Services conducted in 2013 found that 47% of high school students reported having had sex. That’s a pretty sharp increase; however, teen pregnancies are down.

These changes, occurring over the span of 20 years or more, make it critical to remove your memories from the way you think about teens. Asking teens directly may net some useful insights but perhaps the most effective approach for understanding teens is to observe and engage with them in their natural habitats. I’ve written about gaming connecting with teens through gaming communities and music in the past. These indirect routes may offer a clearer window into the lives of teens in a time of change.

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