What Are the Challenges?
What do you think? Are the challenges facing youths of the current generation more difficult than those of the past? If your answer is no, you may feel that today’s teens are the most blessed of any group of young people in history.
In many countries, medicine controls diseases that formerly robbed the young of health and life. Technology produces electronic tools and toys that previous generations only dreamed about. And economic development has lifted millions of families out of poverty. Indeed, countless parents work hard to provide their children with living conditions and educational opportunities that they themselves lacked.
Without a doubt, youths today have many advantages. But they also face unprecedented challenges. One reason is that mankind is now living during a period of time that the Bible calls “the conclusion of the system of things.” (Matthew 24:3) Jesus Christ accurately foretold that this era would be marked by massive social upheaval. (Matthew 24:7, 8) The Bible calls this same era “the last days” and describes the prevalent social conditions as “hard to deal with.” (2 Timothy 3:1) Consider just some of the hard-to-deal-with challenges facing teens today.
Movies, TV shows, and magazines have portrayed youths as constantly surrounded by a group of friends who grow with them through school and maintain that bond as adults. The reality for most teens is quite different.
Researchers Barbara Schneider and David Stevenson, who analyzed interviews conducted with thousands of youths in the United States, found that “relatively few students consistently had the same best friend or a small group of friends over time.” Many youths “lack a sense of connection and have few close friends with whom they feel comfortable discussing problems or sharing ideas,” say Schneider and Stevenson.
Teens who do make friends seem to have little time to spend with them. One extensive study in the United States found that most teenagers spend about 10 percent of their time in face-to-face contact with friends but up to 20 percent of their waking hours alone—more time than they spend with either family or friends. They eat alone, travel alone, entertain themselves alone.
Encouraging this trend toward isolation is the proliferation of electronic devices. For example, in 2006, Time magazine reported that youths in America between the ages of 8 and 18 spent, on average, six and a half hours a day with their eyes glued to the TV, their ears plugged with earphones, or their hands hovering over video-game controls or computer keyboards.*
Of course, this generation is not the first to spend hours enjoying music or playing games. (Matthew 11:16, 17) But the sheer quantity of time now spent in electronic isolation instead of interaction with family can be detrimental. Say researchers Schneider and Stevenson: “Young people report having lower self-esteem, being less happy, enjoying what they are doing less, and feeling less active when they are alone.”
Pressured for Sex
Teens and even preteens are under tremendous pressure to experiment with sex. Nathan, a youth who lives in Australia, says: “Most kids I knew at school began having sex between the ages of 12 and 15.” A young woman named Vinbay, who lives in Mexico, says that casual sex was very common among youths at her school. “Those who did not have sex were considered strange,” she says. “Casual sex is so common among my peers that only saying no once is not enough,” says Ana, a 15-year-old who lives in Brazil. “You repeatedly have to reject the invitations.”
Researchers in the United Kingdom surveyed a thousand youths whose ages ranged between 12 and 19 and who were from a variety of backgrounds. They found that almost 50 percent of the youths regularly engaged in some form of sexual activity. Over 20 percent of these sexually active youths were only 12! Dr. Dylan Griffiths, who oversaw the research, says: “The controls that the family, the Church and other institutions traditionally exerted have vanished, leaving the young as casualties.”
Are youths who experiment with sex really “casualties”? In a report published in 2003, researchers Rector, Noyes, and Johnson drew a direct link between teenage sexual activity, depression, and an increased risk of attempted suicide. They analyzed interviews with 6,500 teenagers and found that “sexually active girls are more than three times more likely to be depressed than are girls who are not sexually active.” And among boys those “who are sexually active are more than twice as likely to be depressed as are those who are not sexually active.”
Youths in the United States have experienced rapid changes in family structure and a shifting set of values. “In the past few decades there have been several major demographic changes that directly affect the lives of teenagers,” says the book The Ambitious Generation—America’s Teenagers, Motivated but Directionless. “The size of the average American family has been decreasing, so adolescents are likely to have fewer siblings. As divorce rates continue to rise, more children are spending part of their childhood with a single parent. And more mothers of children under eighteen are working, so it is less likely that there is an adult at home.”
Whether children are living with one or with two parents, many feel alienated from their parents at the very times they need them most. A study that followed 7,000 teens over a period of years found that most of the adolescents considered their parents to be loving and accepting. Even so, “only a third said that they receive special attention and help when they have a problem.” It also found that “for most adolescents, problem situations are seen as the times when parents are least likely to intervene and offer assistance.”
In Japan the once strong family bond is being corroded by the desire for material success. Yuko Kawanishi, a professor of sociology, says: “Most parents of today’s teenagers belong to the postwar baby-boomer generation, and grew up being exposed to a new set of values emphasizing economic success and material gains.” What values do such parents pass on to their children? “Many parents today primarily care about their children’s academic success,” says Kawanishi. “As long as their children study,” she continues, “other things have become secondary, or do not even matter, at home.”
How can such an unbalanced emphasis on material success and academic achievement affect youths? In Japan the media often talk about kireru—a term describing the way young people suddenly snap under the pressure to perform. “When children appear to act crazy,” says Kawanishi, “it may be because they do not perceive their family to have a controlling impact on their behavior.”
A Reason for Optimism
Certainly, we are living in “critical times hard to deal with.” (2 Timothy 3:1) However, the Bible does much more than just foretell that people living in this period would face increased trouble.
The Bible offers constructive counsel on how youths can improve their lives. Jehovah God, the Author of the Bible, keenly desires to teach young ones how to cope with challenges. (Proverbs 2:1-6) He wants them to have a good life. His Word can give “to the inexperienced ones shrewdness, to a young man knowledge and thinking ability.” (Proverbs 1:4) Consider how Bible principles can help.
Youths who isolate themselves in their room have become so commonplace in Japan that they have been given a name, the hikikomori. Some people estimate that there are between 500,000 and 1,000,000 hikikomori in Japan.
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According to one study, girls who experiment with sex are three times more likely to be depressed than girls who do not
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A government report in 2006 revealed that in Britain cocaine use among 11- to 15-year-olds doubled within a year. Some 65,000 youths said that they had experimented with the drug. In Holland more than 20 percent of youths between 16 and 24 years of age are said to be alcohol dependent to some degree or have an alcohol-related illness.
Many youths express their inner anguish in a more direct way. They cut, bite, or burn their own bodies. “It is estimated that three million Americans suffer from self-injury, and one in every 200 teenagers suffer from chronic self-injury,” say researchers Len Austin and Julie Kortum.
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Many youths lack close friends in whom they can confide