Look beyond the scare stories: the kids are all right

Another day, another media attack on the youth of Australia. We've grown accustomed to current affairs programs pitching reports “all parents should see”, showing “what your kids are getting up to”.

A quick look at the headlines in the past six months would lead you to believe that most of our youth are alcohol-fuelled members of fight clubs, who in between cyber-bullying and sexting, rate their sexual partners’ prowess via websites. How teens find the time to do all of this in between planking, dealing drugs and causing chaos on our roads in their P-plated cars is anyone’s guess.

Based on this evidence, we should ignore Peter Costello’s 2004 call for would-be parents to have “one for mum, one for dad and one for the country”. The last thing Australia needs is more teenagers.

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Unless, of course, the gathering of such evidence deliberately fails to take into account the statistics that show our teenagers in a positive light.

So for the benefit of any editors who are planning another piece exploring “the problem with kids these days”, here is a look at our youth through a different lens.

Despite being told of the “Drug epidemic in NSW schools”, according to the 2010 National Drug Strategy Household Survey, the rate of cannabis use by teenagers aged 14-19 has halved since 1998. In the previous 12 months, the same survey showed 90 per cent of teens hadn’t used cannabis at all, and 97 per cent hadn’t used cocaine, ecstasy, methamphetamines or heroin.

But rather than report this, media outlets will regularly describe the carnage caused by P-plate drivers on our roads. However, closer scrutiny of the statistics shows that the current crop of young drivers is the safest we have ever had.

Should the press ever want to highlight the positive behaviour of our teenagers, they could quote the New South Wales road traffic accident data comparing 2011 figures with the 2008-2010 averages. It shows a 16 per cent reduction in the amount of deaths of drivers under the age of 20 in NSW. Interestingly, in the same time we have only seen improvements of 7 per cent in the 30-39 and 40-49 age brackets, while deaths in the 60-69 age bracket have increased 44 per cent, but we are yet to see a primetime TV show calling for a curfew for drivers over the age of 60.

Of course, when we examine teenage behaviour, it’s not all good news.

The level of risky drinking is increasing in teenage boys and girls, and the greatest concern is that in most cases the drinks of choice are spirits.

It used to be that the taste and cost of spirits prevented teens from drinking excessively, but today alcohol companies are developing products that taste more like soft drinks and are sold at prices easily met by the average teenager allowance. Now we are told Aldi is to sell beer at 83¢ a can in 2012.

With the rise of alcohol consumption there is also a reported rise in the sexual and violent behaviour of teenagers. But who is accountable for this?

This month Diva Accessories, a brand that targets the teenage demographic, was criticised for stocking Playboy merchandise.

Programming directors at the major networks regularly schedule shows with sex scenes in timeslots that ensure teens will be watching.

With regard to violence, psychologists have long believed that violent video games can desensitise teenagers to real-world violence. The government, in its reluctance to introduce an R18+ rating, fails to recognise that the average age of a gamer in Australia is 32 and games are now being designed with this age group in mind, not teenagers.

Society used to believe it took a village to raise a child. In an age when we need to embrace this ideal more than ever, we are stepping further back from it. We leave families to fend for themselves, then become judge and jury blaming the parents when the cracks appear.

This is apparent when examining teenagers’ use of social media. This is an environment many parents do not understand and is banned in schools. If parents and teachers cannot, or are not allowed to, offer guidance on what it means to be a digital citizen, it is unfair to then berate children or their parents for the occasional online misdemeanour.

When children struggle, they do so with issues, pressures and technologies created by adults; in some cases the same adults who serve to enhance their own careers by then exploiting or sensationalising these struggles.

Just once I want to switch on the television to see a piece highlighting that these children use drugs less than children 10 or 15 years ago, and they are a hell of a lot safer on the road. That really would be “a report all parents should see”.