Monday, July 19, 2010

Teen 2.0 (Chapter 5)

Epstein explains the most critical cultural foundation for adolescence--G. Stanley Hall's ideas published in his seminal book Adolescence--and proceeds to tear it down in chapter five of Teen 2.0. Epstein argues that Hall's ideas were based on faulty scientific theories, lack of real evidence, and a bias towards biological determinism so dominant in a post-Darwin world:
Biological determinism was very much in the air while Hall was writing his book, and Hall, a creature of his times, believed strongly that adolescence was determined--a fixed feature of human development that could be explained and accounted for in scientific fashion. To make his case, he relied on Haeckel's faulty recapitulation idea, Lombroso's faulty phrenology-inspired theories of crime, a plethora of anecdotes and one-sided interpretations of date. Given the issues, theories, standards and data-handling methods of his day, he did a superb job. But when you take away the shoddy theories, put the anecdotes in their place, and look for alternate explanations, the bronze statue [of adolescence] tumbles hard. (pg 123)
But what if the "storm and stress" of adolescence proposed by Hall and others isn't a scientific absolute? Could our culture be primarily responsible for the turmoil teens are facing today? It's a question of nature vs. nurture, and Epstein lands squarely on the side of nurture.

The rest of the chapter gives an overview of the modern "storm and stress" American teens are experiencing, including a number of alarming statistics:
  • In 2007, there were roughly 27,000 gangs and 788,000 gang members, most between ages 14 and 24.
  • Also in 2007, 36 percent of high school students had been in a physical fight during the last year, and 18 percent had carried a weapon (gun, club, knife) to school within the prior month.
  • Spending on behavior-altering drugs for minors has now edged out spending for all other legal drugs, including antibiotics, asthma medication, allergies, and skin conditions.
  • About 75 percent of American high school students have tried alcohol, and more than half of high school juniors and seniors drink regularly.
  • About 1.5 million people between the ages of 15 and 19 attempt suicide each year; suicide is the third leading cause of death among teens.
What about hormones and puberty? Isn't that the source of all the aggression and angst? Epstein disagrees, saying that "although puberty brings about significant hormonal changes, such changes are not the cause of teen turmoil" (pg 144). He suggests that other preindustrial cultures don't have the same kind of statistics as America, that any mood swings or anxiety caused by hormones isn't the real culprit.

A significant idea expanded upon in this chapter is correlation vs. causation. "Correlational findings--the vast majority of findings we see reported in the media every day--cannot establish causal relationships" (pg 143). Is the teen turmoil caused by our culture? Or is it caused by biology? Could culture actually affect our biology, causing it to change in only one or two generations? Does the extension of adolescence stem from adults' expectations of teenagers or from a biological shift? It's hard to pinpoint, though I tend towards somewhere in between the extremes of nature and nurture--it seems to be a both/and, not an either/or.

A youth ministry question: how does the church handle the alarming statistics presented? If they are accurate, then over half of the students in our youth groups are drinking alcohol; a third have been in a fight this year; many are likely on behavior-altering prescription medication or antidepressants. How do we love and disciple young people experiencing the stress of growing up in our culture? It's an uphill battle, but one worth fighting.

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