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Expert: Today’s children are the least rebellious in generations

While children encounter adult themes in media earlier than ever before, studies suggest today's high-schoolers are the least rebellious in generations.
While children encounter adult themes in media earlier than ever before, studies suggest today's high-schoolers are the least rebellious in generations.

By J.R. Williams
jrw@familysignal.com

At the beginning of her recently released book, “Media Moms and Digital Dads,” child psychologist Yalda T. Uhls drops some troubling statistics about media today: Violence and sex in PG-13 movies are up since the 1990s. Violent video games top the charts. Magazine ads show more skin than ever.

The list goes on, and that must mean our easily corrupted children engage in inappropriate behavior earlier than ever before. Right?

No, she says.

51xz55l-sHL._SX321_BO1,204,203,200_“Youth today are less inclined to drink, smoke cigarettes, do hard drugs, have sex, or commit a crime than previous generations,” Uhls writes in the book, published this winter.

She was inspired to research the point after reading a Facebook post by “Eat, Pray, Love” author Elizabeth Gilbert titled “In Defense of Teenagers.”

“Are some kids today jerks?” she asks in the post. “Sure, but show me a generation without jerks. I submit, in fact, that this is the least jerky generation yet.”

Uhls says she agrees, and there are stats to support her conclusions: Drinking is down 27 percent among high school seniors, according to a study sponsored by the National Institute of Health. The Centers for Disease Control reports a decrease in 10th graders who have had sex. They also report that crime arrest rates among males ages 10-24 were cut in half from 1995 to 2011.

While this clearly isn’t an encouragement to throw parenting values out the window, it’s a reminder that the fears we have about how a changing world affects our children don’t always reflect reality.

“It is natural to worry about our children, especially when they consume popular media content outside our control,” Uhls says. “However, as you reflect on your parenting rules, remember that the evidence indicates that the majority of our kids are thriving, even amid a sea of change in their media environment.”

The data are contradictory, but the takeaway is that even if their exposure is at younger age, “the behaviors of this cohort of high school students are healthier than ever before.”

The data are contradictory, but the takeaway is that even if their exposure is at younger age, “the behaviors of this cohort of high school students are healthier than ever before.”

But Uhls does not make the point to encourage a hands-off strategy for digital parenting. In fact, she echoed what we’ve been hearing from experts all along: There isn’t a catchall solution for every family. Further, just because crime rates have been falling in the United States among high-schoolers doesn’t mean our sons and daughters can fall into the wrong crowd without consequence. Parents need to be involved, but finding a balance is important.

We’ve been over general rules for every family to consider, and Uhls echoes them: Set times to turn off screens, such as dinnertime. Understand your own media use is a big influence on your kids. But two rules she lists reflect her own spin and are worth noting: Be positive when talking to your kids about media use, instead of merely looking for ways to punish them. And use moments from the real world as teachable moments.

“When I am on the road speaking to parents, I say there are three kinds of parents,” Uhls said in an interview with Psychology in Action, “the stick-their-head-in-the-sand parent who hopes it will all go away and doesn’t help their kids manage their digital lives, the drone parent (the next stage from a helicopter parent) who manages every moment of their child’s digital life and allows no independent learning, and finally the Media Mom & Digital Dad, the kind of parent we advocate for — someone who is engaged and active but not overbearing in their child’s digital life.”


J.R. Williams
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