Nearly half of the nation's youth are at risk of damaging their lives through harmful behavior, the Carnegie Corp. said Wednesday in a report that amounted to an indictment of family, school and community efforts to nurture young adolescents.
Although the journey from childhood to adolescence has always been perilous, the 10-year study says, profound societal changes have left young Americans with less adult supervision while subjecting them to growing pressure to experiment with drugs, engage in sex and turn to violence to resolve conflicts.
"The social costs of severely damaging conditions that shatter lives in adolescence are terrible, not only in their impact on individuals but also in effects that damage the entire society--the costs of disease and disability, ignorance and incompetence, crime and violence, alienation and hatred," the report says.
The study was conducted by the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development, a group of 27 prominent scholars, educators, physicians, psychologists, theologians, former and current public officials and others.
Their report, which focuses on children age 10 to 14, argues that conditions can be turned around through a concerted effort by family members, educators, journalists, civic leaders and public policy-makers.
The answer is to provide young people with close relationships with dependable adults and to instill in them the belief that they have opportunities in mainstream society, according to the report.
"Early adolescence--the phase during which young people are just beginning to engage in very risky behaviors but before damaging patterns have become firmly established--offers an excellent opportunity for intervention to prevent later casualties and promote successful adult lives," the report states.
Because of the awkwardness of young teen-agers and their penchant for bucking the authority of parents and teachers, this opportunity largely has been neglected, the report says.
As the risk to adolescents has risen, so have the costs of ignoring them, the report says.
"The problems have gotten worse," said David Hamburg, president of the Carnegie Corp. of New York. "Young teens engage in more and more risky behavior. Things that used to be tried out in later adolescence are much more commonly occurring earlier--drugs, sex and violence. The risks have gotten higher--from somewhat risky to very risky."
This stage of life has always been tumultuous because of emotional and physical flux caused by puberty's sexual and psychological awakenings. But young adolescents have become more vulnerable in recent years because of the dramatic increase in the time they spend without adult supervision.
The percentage of families with only one parent or with two parents who work out of the home has soared from about 40% in 1970 to almost 70% 20 years later.
They are the teen-agers who go home to empty houses while their younger siblings attend after-school programs.
"Unsupervised after-school hours represent a period of significant risk for engaging in substance abuse and sexual activity," the report warns.
At the same time, pressures have increased from the outside, such as the explosion of gangs and ever more explicit sex and violence in the media.
Teen-agers are engaging in sex and experimenting with alcohol and drugs at earlier ages, and increasing numbers of teen-agers lack the basic skills to resolve conflicts without violence--homicides and suicides among this group are at record levels.
"Altogether, nearly half of American adolescents are at high or moderate risk of seriously damaging their life chances," the report states. "The damage may be near-term and vivid, or it may be delayed, like a time bomb set in youth."
The good news, council members say, is that examples exist across the country of schools or community groups that have grappled seriously with the problems of their young teen-agers and are seeing encouraging results.
While there are no magic bullets, middle schools have improved performance of their students and reduced disciplinary problems by arranging close mentor relationships between their students and teachers, local college students or other community members.
Also successful are community projects that attract teen-agers away from television after school and engage them in activities that improve their neighborhoods.
The report's message to parents is to reject the traditional theories that middle-school children do not need the parental attention and adult supervision that younger children require.
Warning that a failure of parents to spend adequate time often leaves children open to negative peer pressure, the report encourages employers to adopt policies that reflect the need for more free time for the parents of older children.