About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

121 - Reality Gap

#121 was Reality Gap: Alcohol, Drugs, and Sex -- What Parents Don't Know and Teens Aren't Telling, by Stephen Wallace (Union Square Press, 2008).

Dust jacket excerpt: "On one side of the reality gap that gives this book its title are parents' wishful perceptions of what their teens are up to when mom and dad aren't watching. On the other side is the truth. For decades, the gap has been widening -- damaging and even destroying young lives. In this often alarming but ultimately hopeful and life-saving book, Stephen Wallace, the chairman and CEO of SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions), shares groundbreaking research revealing what teens aren't telling their parents."

OK, so the title and blurb sound a little hysterical. And I know, I know -- I swore off the fear-mongering perils of adolescence tracts all of, what, a month ago? Forgive me; I was weak. (Besides, this one was already in the bull pen when I finished Disappearing Girl and made said vow. And heaven knows, if I don't always read my library books in the proper, preordained order, Bad Things just may happen.)

This will not be a marathon review akin to my last 2, but sometimes, I guess low expectations are a good thing. I didn't agree with all Wallace's points, and he does tend to go over the top at times ... but he did have some useful ideas, and his research methodology (a 6-year, randomly-sampled national survey of middle and high school students) seemed on the whole fairly sound. The book's central thesis is that a much higher percentage of adolescents are engaging in risky behavior (drinking, using drugs, driving dangerously, having sex, and contemplating suicide), and at much younger ages, than their parents tend to expect. Some of the summary stats Wallace throws the reader's way:
  • 20% of 8th graders and 50% of 12th graders report consuming alcohol within the past 30 days. 20% of 8th graders have been drunk at least once, and 30% of 12th graders have engaged in at least 1 episode of binge drinking.
  • 46% of 12th graders report at least some drug use; those who do use drugs begin, on average, at 13.
  • 25% of middle schoolers and 2/3 of high school students have engaged in sexual activity other than kissing; over half of high school students report having had intercourse.
  • 33% of teen drivers don't wear a seat belt; over 60% speed and/or talk on their cell phones while driving; and 20% have driven under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
Based on the research methods he outlines in the introduction, I'm inclined to think the above numbers fairly accurate, although I do wish he'd been a bit clearer in some of his definitions. For example, does the percentage of teens who use drugs include anyone who's ever taken a toke of a joint, or even bummed a prescription-strength pain reliever off a friend? Or does it only count repeat or habitual users? Likewise, "sexual activity other than kissing" can encompass a wide range of behaviors. One might argue that any illegal drug use or sexual activity is in appropriate for adolescents. At least for drugs and alcohol, this does seem to be Wallace's argument. While I tend to agree when it comes to illegal drug use, I'm not so sure about alcohol -- and even if I were, the way I'd approach teen drinking or drug use might well vary based on whether my child got caught with beer at a party once, or was coming home drunk every weekend. Wallace does distinguish between 3 categories of adolescent behavior around risky decision-making (avoiders, who eschew alcohol/ drugs/ sex altogether; experimenters, who indulge occasionally; and repeaters, who do so regularly), and acknowledges that "knowing where a teen falls on this continuum of decision-making is crucial, because this information allows us to plan our communication, prevention, and intervention strategies accordingly," so this oversight is somewhat surprising.

After a chapter outlining the prevalence of various dangerous behaviors, Wallace proceeds to the "Risky Business" chapter, discussing why each of these activities is dangerous. When it comes to alcohol, he repeatedly comes back to the point that teens whose parents allow them to drink at home, even if it's just on special occasions, are almost 4 times as likely to drink with their friends as are those whose parents allow now underage drinking whatsoever. Maybe I'm being self-serving here, but I'm not sure I buy it -- or at least, I'm not sure there's not some third factor at work here (e.g., perhaps some of the parents who never allow drinking have religious prohibitions against it, which their kids would also be likely to have). As the chairman of SADD, it's not surprising that Wallace wants to take a hard, absolute line against teen drinking, but I'm also not sure it tells the whole story. Granted, drinking or possessing alcohol is illegal if you're under 21, which opens you up to a whole host of potential legal problems. Additionally, alcohol is a factor in many bad decisions about sex, driving, and other risky activities -- perhaps more so for teens, who are still fairly new to all 3. I'll even allow that excess drinking may be more dangerous to children and adolescents, whose brains aren't yet fully developed, than to adults. That said, however, the fact that many (granted, not all) adults can drink safely in moderation, and that many other countries allow at least some teens to drink without negative consequence, suggests that this isn't as simple an issue as he'd have us believe.

One interesting concept Wallace puts forth, which I hadn't really considered before, is that of decision points: predictable times when first-time experimentation with certain behaviors is likely to take place. He argues:
"Negative risk-taking tends to increase throughout adolescence. This trend presents an inherent problem -- an inverse correlation of parental persuasion. The younger teens are, the more likely they are to listen to the views and directions of their parents. Yet the behaviors their parents find most troublesome don't often appear until later in adolescence, when their opinions hold more limited sway. But by discussing certain issues before they are likely to become relevant, parents lay the groundwork for good decision-making by well-prepared teens. 'Early and often' remins an important catch phrase in educating young people about healthy choices -- before they 'jump the shark.'"
He goes on to suggest that drinking tends to increase between 6th and 7th grades, drug use between 8th and 9th, and sexual activity between 10th and 11th, and to explore the reasons why kids may choose at these times either to drink (or smoke, or ... ) or not.

From here, it's an extended and not particularly ground-breaking few chapters on how to talk to your teenager. (Summary: Don't avoid tough topics; bring them up in a casual, non-judgmental way; make your values and expectations clear.) Similarly, while I agree in principle with the idea of gradually shifting responsibility from parents to teens as the latter grow up, this isn't exactly new information.

So, in a word, eh. While I may now be thinking about locking up my liquor cabinet sooner rather than later, this certainly isn't a life-changing read.

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