By Lisa Huffines
Sex, drugs and social media. These are concerns of today’s parents, and they’re not so different from those of generations past. On February 10 before a packed house at The Trinity School, a panel of sixteen New York City independent school ninth- through twelfth-graders shed light on just what’s going on with teens today. Lucy Martin Gianino, who has moderated twenty-six of Parents in Action’s twenty-eight Teen Scene discussions, noted that the teens on her first panels are now old enough to be parents in the audience!
What’s distressing many parents about kids and sex today is that it seems so casual. The panelists did not disabuse us of that impression saying that committed relationships are rare in high school. One panelist could think of only “three couples in [her] whole upper school,” that were committed and another cited only five or six. Much of the rest of high school romantic life consists of “hooking up” but parents shouldn’t assume hooking up always goes as far as intercourse. Several said there is no overwhelming pressure to lose one’s virginity, except perhaps for kids who have been in long-term relationships. The panelists did acknowledge that the hook-up culture can lead to binge drinking. Intoxication mutes inhibitions and provides an excuse the next morning, one student said, allowing teens to “experiment sexually.” Several showed visible discomfort at the prospect of discussing safe sex with their parents; one said, “please don’t bring it up ever” and another urged parents to “let the school do it.” But all agreed that parents must be certain their children get such information somewhere, and several said they would welcome parental advice on relationships.
DRUGS (AND ALCOHOL)
Not surprisingly in a culture that’s gone as far as ours has to decriminalize marijuana, today’s teens do not view pot in the same category as other illegal drugs. Several panelists expressed confidence it can be used safely, perhaps even more safely than alcohol. Teens said drugs are easy to find in the city and sources include older siblings, upperclassmen from school, and dealers, easily approached in places like Washington Square Park and Union Square or “just around” at parties.
A “party,” the teens explained, could be anything from a “free,” which is ten to fifteen kids in an unsupervised or lightly supervised home, to a “house party,” which is the same sort of gathering only larger (40 to 100 kids), to a party in a rented space to which a mass invite is extended over Facebook. Drugs and alcohol are almost a given at any of these events, the panelists said, but there are exceptions (at least at smaller parties) and not every child partakes. Their advice to parents: don’t assume your child is guilty of using drugs or alcohol, but assume she will encounter them, from the beginning of freshman year on. Pretending drugs and alcohol don’t exist, the teens emphasized, is a poor parental strategy.
Some New York teens still go to bars and nightclubs, for which fake IDs are easily obtainable for $100 to $200. One panelist said bars are “less dangerous” than clubs.
The most commonly seen of the harder illegal drugs, the panelists said, are hallucinogenic mushrooms, “molly,” and acid, the prevalence of which one student attributed to the rave culture. The teens occasionally see cocaine or prescription drug abuse, although one panelist said the use of attention-deficit drugs like Adderall and Ritalin without a prescription is “more a college thing.” The panel chorused an emphatic “no” when asked if they’d seen heroin. It was clear that the panelists had seen many instances of dangerous alcohol consumption, but urged parents not to overreact to a single incident. Teens are inexperienced drinkers, they pointed out, and “kids make mistakes.” More than one panelist said it is not cool to be the kid who gets “sloppy drunk” weekend after weekend.
Parents of teens who still worry about Facebook are really behind the times, according to the Teen Scene panelists. Facebook “is actually quite nice,” one girl explained; much use of the site these days takes place within small, private groups. As an example, one panelist cited her high school’s senior class page, which has been a fun, unifying activity and, if forbidden, would remove a student from important conversations. Instagram, many panelists said, now offers a platform for “showing off,” projecting “exclusivity” and sharing “a life you wish you had”; a platform that Facebook used to provide. Snapchat is another new social media platform with potentially dangerous uses; its central feature is that the photos posted on it disappear after thirty seconds, and its early reputation was as a “sexting” platform. But, panelists said, even Snapchat can be and usually is used properly. In any event, the panelists said, unhealthy uses of social media are largely a middle school thing, and any parent who tries to forbid social media will almost certainly be defied.
Another “middle school thing,” according to panelists, is pervasive social ostracism. One teen said that by high school outside pressures have ramped up so much that kids feel they are all in it together and stop judging each other. Another said he felt lucky to live in a city where tensions over race and sexual orientation are largely a thing of the past. To be sure, high school students still feel enormously stressed, but their stresses come largely from a desire to succeed and the pressure to gain admission to competitive colleges. More and more, this means filling their days with academics, sports, and numerous extracurricular activities. Surprisingly, when asked which of these activities they would eliminate if they could, the answer several came up with was “long commutes”.