Hormones on Overdrive

It’s another spring evening at the Mall of America, where the Glitz
store is in full bloom with taffeta and tulle. Pastel Cinderella
dresses glimmer under the fluorescent lights, and the skirts bursting
from these sleeveless bodices are so lush, they make the satin wedding
gown I wore fourteen years ago seem downright drab. I touch the
bejeweled outer layer of a particularly lovely dress, and then I see
its $298 price tag, which further confirms the dowdiness of my own
once-upon-a-time princess costume (now stored dutifully in a cardboard
box in the basement, for posterity).

In any case, I’m not here for a dress, but for the teenagers who buzz
around me, circling the racks and ducking in and out of dressing rooms
with their selections. I’ve already spent countless hours in
legitimate, moderated teen chat rooms, marveling at the banter among
twelve- to fifteen-year-old boys and girls. Most recently they’ve been
asking each other for advice about whether or not to have sex, what to
do if your dad thinks you’re a ’ho, how to get a girl back, combating
lust, and whether boys prefer shaved pubic hair on girls. Now I’m
hoping to break out of the close, sweaty space of these anonymous chats
and talk to some local teens face to face. I see a friendly looking
girl at the rack with the jeweled skirt and I make my move.

Melissa, it turns out, is a junior from Lafayette, Minnesota
(population 529), and she’s here shopping for the prom. She doesn’t
have a date yet, but she plans to go either way, because, as she
explains, prom is a very big deal. “I guess girls like to get all
dolled up, it makes us feel important,” she told me shyly, averting her
gaze. When I asked if she thought there would be drinking and drugs and
sex at the prom, she looked a bit wounded. “No, I don’t think we really
have that kind of thing,” she said.

Of the fifteen or so kids in my highly unscientific sampling at the
mall that night, Melissa, the shy girl sporting a mouthful of braces
and little or no make-up on her almost clear skin, was the only one who
expressed such reassuring naivete.

If the lilac buds outside my window pop open today, then others were
blooming yesterday along roadsides approximately seventeen miles south
of here, and still more will be doing so tomorrow seventeen miles
northward. Spring rolls along at a pleasantly predictable pace year
after year, global warming or no. As it arrives, it greens the lawns,
buds the trees, and transforms winter’s faded trash into dirty
pinwheels to blow in the wind. Spring also heralds prom night, a
cultural relic that UrbanDictionary.com now defines as an “unusual
American custom in which otherwise Puritanical just-say-no parents
support, tolerate, approve of, or feign ignorance and/or disapproval of
teenage public drunkenness, destruction of hotel property, and lewd
behavior.”

Today’s proms are not at all the crepe paper-and-punch affairs of times
past. As the premiere social events of the teen season and the last
hurrah of adolescence, today’s over-the-top, limo- and hotel-enhanced,
booze- and sex-soaked proms might even be viewed as emblematic of the
way everything about American adolescence has changed. And adolescence
has changed, in that it now lasts for all of about twenty minutes—or
twenty years, depending on how you look at it. We simultaneously want
to accelerate childhood into adulthood, and spend our adulthood
resisting the trappings of age and idolizing and emulating youth.

American adolescence is both the shortest and the longest it has ever
been at any point in history, which isn’t saying all that much, since
the term “teenager” with all its associated connotations was only first
coined in 1942—prior to which the notion of an extended passage between
childhood and adulthood had yet to be embraced in ideological or
practical terms.

Modern adolescence has been defined as lasting until anywhere between
age nineteen and thirty-four (the latter being the age of adulthood, as
pinpointed by the $3.4 million “Transitions to Adulthood” project,
funded by the MacArthur Foundation). Known as the Peter Pan syndrome,
the trend of extended adolescence is represented by a growing number of
twenty-somethings who depend on their parents well past the point of
legal adulthood. According to the Institute for Social Research at the
University of Michigan, the number of young adults in their twenties
living at home with their parents increased by fifty percent between
1970 and 1990. Today, sixty-three percent of college students say they
plan to live with their parents after graduation.

Meanwhile, when does adolescence start? Scientists have noticed that
this physiological phase begins as much as a year earlier with each
passing generation. And younger adolescents’ exposure to sex, drugs,
alcohol, and independence from parental authority is becoming more
widespread and intense. Increasingly younger children are taking up the
outer vestments of teendom. Meanwhile, the physical signs of puberty
are also creeping down to affect eight-, seven-, even six-year-old
girls (and the newest research suggests the age of puberty is also
falling for boys). A century ago, the average age for a girl’s first
period, or menarche, was about seventeen. Menarche now hits girls
between twelve and thirteen. Alcohol, drugs, and sex are now typical,
rather than exceptional, components of modern adolescence. Social
research also shows the most influential forces in the lives of many
teens shifting from family to peer culture, including the media, at
younger and younger ages. This is not restricted to urban settings.
Suburban high school students have sex, drink, smoke, use illegal
drugs, and engage in delinquent behavior as often as urban public high
school kids. This is according to senior researchers at the Manhattan
Institute, who drew their findings from the National Longitudinal Study
of Adolescent Health—one of the most comprehensive and rigorous studies
of American high school students. Regardless of where they live,
students also engage in these behaviors much more often than most
people realize.

The American press is saturated with stories about the “crisis of
adolescence,” with new headlines literally every day. And then, every
so often, someone cries foul, protesting all the fuss: “Shut up,
already. They’re teenagers! Teenagers have always been reckless and
there never were any good old days, so get over it!”

It’s an appealing sentiment, in a way. If we accept it at face value,
we can let out a guilty little sigh and go back to business as usual,
convinced that things are not, after all, so bad out there—and
certainly not so much worse then when we were kids. This denial ought
to hold up for as long as it takes to read the facts from a recent slew
of news stories: The U.S. has the highest rates of teen pregnancy and
births (and abortions) in the western industrialized world. Half of all
fourteen-year-olds have been to a party with alcohol. Self-harm
(cutting) is increasing among children as young as six. More than
79,000 teens under eighteen received cosmetic surgery in 2001, and
3,682 of those got fake breasts—up from 392 in 1994. Almost half of
fourteen-year-olds report current drinking behavior; about a quarter
report heavy drinking and marijuana use. Girls as young as twelve are
reporting pressure to have sex. Twenty percent of twelve- to
fourteen-year-olds have had sex. The percentage of sexually active
eighteen-year-olds has risen steadily from twenty-three percent in 1959
to eighty percent in 1999. Sixty-six percent of all high school seniors
have had sex. Half of all young people report experience with oral
sex—which they, like Bill Clinton, don’t define as “sex.” American kids
spend twenty-eight hours per week watching television. Childhood
obesity has hit an all-time high. About three quarters of teens believe
that the actions of other teens are influenced by the sexual behavior
seen on television. Sixty-five percent of the sexually transmitted
diseases diagnosed this year will be among people under twenty-five. A
statewide study shows that ten percent of adolescent males in Minnesota
have chlamydia. Teens are five times more likely to get herpes today
than in 1970, and because most teens think oral sex is safe, record
numbers of teens are contracting a strain of mouth herpes that was once
associated only with genitals.

The story spins out as far as you can follow it and beyond, and in the
end it should force us to wonder if, after all this, the kids are all
right.

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