With each new study, they appear more like wild, willful creatures, destined to usher in the end of civilization. But the most recent statistics have some people asking who are more frightening: kids today or the adults around them?
The findings of last week's report from the Carnegie Corp.--"Great Transitions: Preparing Adolescents for a New Century"--were grim: One-third of the nation's 19 million 10- to 14-year-olds are said to use illicit drugs; they kill themselves twice as often as they did 15 years ago; they are killed twice as often as they were 10 years ago.
They smoke cigarettes and marijuana more than they used to. They keep having unwanted pregnancies and they're not doing any better in school.
While not surprising, the report--which said nearly half of all early adolescents are "at risk"--left youth advocates furious or amused, depending on their interpretations of who is responsible and what should be done.
To Mike Males, a UC Irvine doctoral student who is writing a book on the scapegoating of adolescents, it seemed to be one more example of the "teen-bashing Establishment" wrongly blaming adolescents for behavior that is basically influenced by adults.
Males' statistics show, for instance, that adult and teen rates for unwed births and suicides rise and fall in lock step over time.
His 1993 study found that more than a third of students in Los Angeles County lived with parents who smoked. Those students were three times more likely to be smoking on a daily or weekly basis by age 15 than students from nonsmoking households.
In some areas, such as Orange County, adult men account for most unwanted teen-age pregnancies, some of it "outright rape," and HIV rates are rising faster for junior high school girls than for boys, a sign that the girls are being infected by older men, Males said.
The only area in which youths do not seem to follow adults is drug abuse. In Los Angeles County, teen-agers account for only 1% of drug deaths, he said.
Some experts said they believe that youths today are no more wild or willful than they were thousands of years ago; what's different now is that adults are cutting them loose. "Basically, this is an undeclared war," said Barry Krisberg, president of the San Francisco-based National Council on Crime and Delinquency.
"In large measure, the blaming of the kids is about covering up what adults are doing," he said.
Krisberg pointed to police assaults against young people, changes in laws that regard juveniles as adults and treat them more harshly, and cutbacks in after-school recreation and development programs. He spoke bitterly about "bought" politicians' refusals to stand up to the National Rifle Assn. and ban guns, and the inability of anyone else to get elected.
Author Jonathan Kozol said the term "at risk" makes him uneasy because it seems to include everyone. "I've spent the past two years talking with children in the South Bronx, and I know what 'at risk' means." (Kozol wrote a book about the experience, the forthcoming "Amazing Grace," published by Crown.)
"That kind of shock makes good headlines for one day, but it has no long-lasting effect because it is transparent to people that this is simply playing with words," Kozol said. "It will distract the nation from dealing with those children who are genuinely at risk.
"Of course, there is a genuine problem in this country, and this isn't exaggerated in the least," he said. "There are millions of children in extreme poverty who are genuinely at risk. Unfortunately this phrase has come to be a cliche. . . .
"You try in vain to find a real child in the midst of these reports," he said.
Real kids, from John Burroughs Middle School in Hancock Park, confirmed the widespread dangers.
"Most of the kids don't get high," said 12-year-old Ronald.
"Most of the kids get offered drugs, but most say no," added his friend Dejan, 14.
"My mom won't allow me to do drugs or join a gang," said Lynnye Smith, 13. "Me neither," said friend Hayoung Lee.
But, Lynnye added, "You can smell weed at school. You walk by, and there's a certain hangout."
"There's beer cans in the trash cans," added Hayoung.
"Kids are dazed in class," Lynnye said. "They fall asleep."
Kids have their own ideas about what must be done to keep kids out of trouble.
"More activities," offered David Gasparian, 13. "And make the parks better. That's where people mostly hang out."
"Don't be friends with people who do drugs," said Walter Morales, 12. "And adults should listen to kids. Talk to them. They need to talk to adults."
The Carnegie report offers myriad recommendations, a sign that some experts thought of the gravity of the problem and tremendous abdication of adult responsibility. Among them were middle-school reform, including more personal and coordinated attention from teachers, stronger life sciences programs, and one-stop centers for counseling or health information.
But Gary R. Peterson, the founder of Parents Against DARE, in Ft. Collins, Colo., said he "kind of laughed" at the recommendations. He believes sex- and drug-education programs not only do not prevent sexual activity and drug use, but in fact provide the very education that encourages young people to experiment.
"We want to let our children be children," he said. "When it comes to drug and sex questions, who better to know when the child is ready than the parents? I have a problem with federal programs like DARE and others that undermine our values, implying children have choices where parents haven't given them one."
When children return to abusive or neglectful homes, or poor or violent neighborhoods, schools face a "mission impossible," Males said. The Carnegie report said that one in five children is growing up in poverty; one in two will live with a single parent at some time.
Reports that stress remedial programs for kids shift the focus from the real problem--adults--and instead zero in on the fruitless task of changing kids.
Said Males: "No matter how much we work on them, they tend to act like the adults who raise them."