Fall 1993 // Volume 31 // Number 3 // Feature Articles // 3FEA6

Previous Article Issue Contents Previous Article

Are Youth at Risk?

In public discussion of today's youth problems, balance and context has vanished. As a result, youth policy and programming are increasingly divorced from research findings, historical lessons and common sense. Many of us in Extension youth development education have simply repeated the popular myths circulating in the media about "at-risk" youth without questioning their basis or using research to help us more accurately discern the situation of today's youth. It's time to change from a deficit focus on liabilities to concentrate on building strengths in youth programs. We need to concentrate our efforts away from just "fixing" problem kids and toward efforts for creating positive opportunities to develop youth potential.

Kirk A. Astroth
Extension Specialist, 4-H Youth Development
Extension Service
Montana State University-Bozeman.
Internet address: acxka@trex.oscs.montana.edu

In public discussion of today's youth problems, balance and context has vanished. As a result, youth policy and programming are increasingly divorced from research findings, historical lessons, and common sense. Many of us in Extension youth development education have simply repeated the popular myths circulating in the media about "at-risk" youth without questioning their basis or using research to help us more accurately discern the situation of today's youth.

Risk in Perspective

The extent to which youth are labeled "at risk" varies according to different authorities from psychology, education, sociology, and other fields. Some authorities maintain that today "all youth are born at high risk."1 Others, like Dryfoos, estimate that one-quarter of 10-17 year olds are "high risk" and that an additional 25% are at moderate risk.2 On the other hand, educators Males and Lewis argue that today's teens are doing well in comparison to previous generations and that only a small percentage are "at risk" for life failures.3 Given the disagreement among experts (and even lack of consensus about whether youth are at risk or they live in at-risk environments), it seems reasonable to question general claims about the state of American teens.

With the array of adolescent problems displayed in the media, it's surprising when research surveys show that teenagers are healthier, better educated, basically optimistic, and more responsible by nearly every measure than teens of the past.4 The Iowa Youth Poll, for example, demonstrated that most youth feel satisfied with their lives and generally positive about themselves.5 A recent study of adolescents in Montana reported that "Montana adolescents view themselves positively. The overall adolescent population is healthy and vital."6

The situation for the majority of youth, including African- American youth, is improving. For example, while high school completion rates have remained largely unchanged for most other groups during the past 20 years, African-American student completion rates have increased by 10%. Moreover, African- American dropouts are more likely than members of any other group to have returned to school within four years. Between 1976 and 1992, the mean scores for African-American students on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) rose 20 points on the verbal section and 31 points on the math section. African-American students are also much less likely to engage in alcohol and drug use-and more likely to engage in community service-than youth of other racial groups.7

Today's teens are also healthier than teens of the past. Never before have teenagers been less likely to die from disease; never before have more been enrolled in or graduated from educational institutions;8 never have fewer been forced out of school by injury, sickness, poverty, handicap, early pregnancy, or social disadvantage; never before has their projected life span been longer. As Lewis points out, this is an important story that's not being told, yet "the facts are easily accessible from sources that anyone can find in the library...."9

Like previous generations of adults, we appear to be suffering from a reoccurring bout of what I call "ephebiphobia"10 (a fear and loathing toward adolescents). Nearly every generation of young people has been chastised as "out of control" or aberrant in some way. Alarmist statements about the younger generation can be found in the 1930s, 40s, 50s, and certainly in the 1960s. For example, the cover of a 1954 issue of Newsweek blared: "Let's Face It: Our Teenagers Are Out of Control." The article laments a "national teenage problem-a problem that is apparently getting worse." And why? "There's too much divorce, too few normal homes," claimed one sociologist. Others denounced "salacious, sadistic comic books."11 Today, we tend to blame rock -n-roll, MTV, or heavy metal music.

Young people today are typically portrayed as some aberrant and pariah class suffering its own distinct "epidemics" that are different from behavior of previous generations and bear no relationship to adult patterns of behavior.

Yet, an early survey of teenager drinking patterns in the 1950s also describes patterns that are the same as those of teens today.12 Moreover, unwed pregnancy rates are lower for teens than for any other age group except for women over the age of 35.13 Today's teens have lower rates of suicide, violent death, unwed pregnancy, drug abuse, smoking, and drunk drinking than young and middle-aged adults. And where youth problems do occur, adult influence is direct.14

Negative Treatment of Youth

"Youth at risk" has become a lens through which all young people are viewed so that adolescence itself is seen today as some awful, incurable disease. Indeed, it would appear that troubled youth aren't the exception but rather have become the dysfunctional rule. As Lofquist observes, our reliance on a deficit-focused, diagnosed problem model to frame youth behavior has fostered an overly negative perspective and a limited vision.15 The overly negative treatment of the current generation of young people is evident in several areas. The first is youth gang involvement. Despite a barrage of media attention, today's youth are no more likely to be involved in gang activities. In cities like Los Angeles, estimates are that only 5%-10% of all young people are involved in gangs. "Even in the most heavily gang-infested neighborhoods, the majority of young people are not gang-affiliated." As Prothrow-Stith and Weissman observe: the failure of the mass media to accurately portray gang activity has existed for decades-long before West Side Story. Gang activity has changed little over time, but what has changed is the amount of attention editors-and thus the public-have paid to it.16

The pathological treatment of youth is also manifest in the mental health area. Since 1980, teen psychiatric admissions have increased 250%-400%, but one observer notes "it's not because teens are suddenly so much crazier than they were a decade ago."17 The Children's Defense Fund has suggested that at least 40% of these juvenile admissions are inappropriate.18 According to Schwartz of the University of Minnesota, the figure may be closer to 50%. Such premature institutionalization may violate teens' civil rights and are a result of parent's inability to deal with normal adolescent behavior.19

Teenage pregnancy rates are used to portray today's youth as amoral and permissive. Yet, in Montana, for instance, nearly 60% of so-called teenage pregnancies result from relationships between teenage girls and men over the age of 21.20 Only 1.5% of all pregnancies in the U.S. involved youth under age 19. Eight percent of all teenage pregnancies actually involved two minors under age 16 and just 21% involve two teenagers 16-19.21 The most important thing adults can do about the "epidemic of teen pregnancy" in Montana and other states is to stop causing it.

Teen suicide is now frequently cited as "epidemic." The often-quoted figures are that nearly 6,000 teens kill themselves annually and that suicide has tripled (or quadrupled, depending on who you read) since the 1950s. What does the research data say?

Federal data for 1990 shows 13.6 suicides per 100,000 population for people ages 15-24. The cited teen suicide rate of 6,000 comes from this same age group-a group which also includes young adults. To be accurate in discussing teen suicide, we should be looking at the suicide rate for 13-19 year olds. Vital statistics data show that the suicide rate for 10-19 year olds is about 10 per 100,000, one of the lowest for most age groups. More teenagers die each year from cancer (13 per 100,000) than from suicide.22

What we also fail to ask is how the teenager suicide rate compares to other age groups. Senior citizens over the age of 85 have a suicide rate of 22.5 per 100,000-two and a half times the rate for 10-19 year olds. Those 75-84 have a suicide rate of 26.1 per 100,000. Those 65-74 years of age have a suicide rate of 18.1 per 100,000. And rates for Americans 65 and older rose 21% from 1980 to 1986.23 Who's at risk?

Teenagers as a whole are less likely to commit suicide than any age group except pre-teens. In Montana, the teen suicide rate is not rising, and youth suicide levels and trends appear to be linked to those of adult suicide. What has changed, though, is the reporting of how teens die. Many firearm deaths during the 1950s that were classified as "accidental" are now accurately listed as suicides. The tripling of the teen suicide rate is more a function of accuracy in classifying teen deaths than an indictment of overall teen health.

Implications for Extension

So, what do these facts mean for an Extension System that has brought into the "at-risk" model? First, they suggest Extension youth education move away from a deficit-focused, problem model and move toward a condition-focused, resiliency model that recognizes and supports the basic vitality and strength of all young people.

Imagine how different our view of early childhood might be if child development were taught only through a focus on bedwetting, stuttering, and sibling rivalry. Yet, that's the approach taken when we teach and research about adolescents from a deficit, epidemic, or crisis perspective. Why is it that when we talk about an Extension initiative on youth, we use negative terminology like "at risk" or "plight"? How would Extension be perceived if we labeled the water quality issue as water pollution, framed the food safety issue as food contamination, and described agricultural competitiveness and profitability as avoiding farm foreclosures and bankruptcies? To support young people, we need a more positive approach.

Second, Extension youth workers should closely check the data for their communities, before succumbing to the national mythology that all youth are at risk. Broad generalizations about youth can detract from targeted efforts to address real-not perceived-problems in local communities. Extension's programmatic actions should be based on research.

Third, we should be careful about the messages sent to young people. Unwarranted pessimism about one's generation, reinforced by negative and false publicity, can damage the confidence young people have in themselves and their future. Inherent in worthwhile efforts to prevent teen problems should be respect for the stability of our teenage population as a whole. Alarming parents, legislators, communities, and youth themselves with "all teens are at risk" does an injustice to the vast majority of youngsters who don't deserve a reputation for self- destructiveness.

Beneath the national barrage of "youth problems" is a story of hope and determination in the face of challenging conditions. Rather than point fingers at youth, we should ask what institutions, such as Extension, are doing to enhance prospects for young people who are overcoming incredible odds and succeeding, only to confront barriers in young adulthood? Perhaps, we should focus on the fact that more African-American youth are in poverty now than were two decades ago. Or, we can recognize barriers such as racism which prevents 55% of black high school graduates from being employed (compared to 25% of white graduates).24

Fourth, Extension programming should reflect the facts that the majority of today's youth are well-adjusted, and the great majority of children who grow up in vulnerable environments do not develop self-destructive patterns of behavior.25 Perhaps we ought to examine these youth more closely. After all, in studying an epidemic, one of the first steps is to determine how the survivors differ from those who succumb to the disease. Rather than lamenting government policies or a changing family structure, youth educators would do better to clarify the resiliency factors that help youth in the most tragic circumstances survive and thrive. Then, we can take the steps necessary to create the conditions and foster the personal attributes that enhance the well-being of all young people.

Fifth, while the problems faced by youth are serious, Extension educators shouldn't treat the situation as an "epidemic." Certainly, some youth are troubled and "at risk." Precisely because such problems as suicide, drug addiction, child abuse, and delinquency are enormous tragedies argues persuasively that the most accurate information and perspective should be applied to their study and prevention. Blanket approaches categorizing all youth as "at risk" aren't effective and really dilute the effectiveness of what should be targeted, research- based efforts.

It's time to change from a deficit focus on liabilities to concentrate on building strengths in youth programs. Developing youth potential means focusing our efforts on creating the positive conditions and individual assets that foster the presence of resiliency factors and offset risk factors. We need to concentrate our efforts away from just "fixing" problem kids and toward efforts for creating positive opportunities to develop youth potential. Extension youth professionals must commit themselves to taking a critical, unbiased look at the research related to youth problems. Only then will we transcend ephebi- phobia and focus on the minority of youth who truly need help and support.


1. H. Stephen Glenn and Jane Nelsen, Raising Self- Reliant Children in a Self-Indulgent World: Seven Building Blocks for Developing Capable Young People (Rocklin, California: Prima Publishing & Communications, 1988), p. 49.

2. J. G. Dryfoos, Adolescents at Risk: Prevalence and Prevention (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990).

3. Mike Males, "Top School Problems Are Myths," Phi Delta Kappan, LXXIV (September 1992), 54-55 and Anne C. Lewis, "A Tale Not Widely Told," Phi Delta Kappan, LXXIV (November 1991), 196-97.

4. Joanne Keith, L. Hoopfer, and C. Nelson, Michigan Early Adolescent Survey (East Lansing: Michigan State University, Department of Family and Child Ecology and 4-H Youth Programs, 1985).

5. Iowa Youth Poll (Ames: Iowa State University Extension Service, 1991).

6. Montana Adolescent Health Status (Helena, Montana: Healthy Mothers & Healthy Babies, Montana Office of Public Instruction and the Montana Department of Health and Environmental Sciences, 1990), p. 10.

7. U.S., Department of Education, The Condition of Education, 1992 (Washington, D.C.: National Center for Education Statistics, 1992), pp. 5-6.

8. The National Education Goals Report: Building a Nation of Learners (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1992). This report points out that the dropout rate has steadily declined and is at its lowest in history. In 1990, for example, 83% of all 19-20 year olds reported completing high school and the completion rate for those 23-24 years of age was 86%. In 1990, only 12% of all youth 16-24 years of age were high school dropouts.

9. Lewis, " Tale Not Widely Told," p. 196. 10. In ancient Greece, an ephebus was any Athenian youth who entered into a specialized training program in preparation for full citizenship. During the training, ephebi were denied most civic rights conferred on adults.

11. "Our Vicious Young Hoodlums: Is There Any Hope?" Newsweek, XLIV (September 6, 1954), 43.

12. "First Report on High School Drinking: Called Shocking by Some, Encouraging by Others," Better Homes and Gardens, XXXII (March 1954), 72, 73, 137-140, 142. This article reports an unpublished survey by the Research Bureau of Hofstra College.

13. Vital Statistics of the U.S. 1988, Volume I-Natality, Part A (Hyattsville, Maryland: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1990), Table 1-32, p. 58.

14. John O'Neil, "A Generation Adrift?" Educational Leadership, XIXL (September 1991), 4. The Education Commission of the States recently examined preventable conditions associated with children's development of learning problems: low birthweight, maternal smoking, prenatal alcohol exposure, prenatal exposure to drugs, lead poisoning, child abuse and neglect, and malnutrition- all factors related to adult behaviors.

15. William A. Lofquist, "Mental Models and Fundamental Change: A Path to Human Service Transformation," New Designs for Youth Development, X (Spring 1992), 28-33.

16. Deborah Prothrow-Stith and Michaele Weissman, Deadly Consequences (New York: Harper-Collins, 1991), p. 104.

17. Lynette Lamb, "Kids in the Cuckoo's Nest: Why Are We Locking Up America's Troublesome Teens?" Utne Reader, L (March/April 1992), 38-39.

18. Jane Knitzer, Unclaimed Children: A Failure of Public Responsibility to Children and Adolescents in Need of Mental Health Services (Washington, D.C.: Children's Defense Fund, 1982), p. 46.

19. Holly Metz, "Kids in the Cuckoo's Next," The Progressive, LV (December 1991), 22-25.

20. Montana Vital Statistics, 1988 and 1989 (Helena: Montana Department of Health and Environmental Sciences, 1991).

21. Vital Statistics of the U.S., 1988, Volume I-Natality.

22. Vital Statistics of the U.S., 1988, Volume II-Mortality, Part A (Hyattsville, Maryland: U.S., Department of Health and Human Services, 1990), Table 1-26, pp. 300-301.

23. Ibid..

24. The Condition of Education, 1992, p. 268.

25. Emmy Werner and R. S. Smith, Vulnerable, But Invincible: A Longitudinal Study of Resilient Children and Youth (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1982).