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Adults Increasingly Removed From Teen Reality
November 02 2005
Maia Szalavitz
Psychiatrist diagnoses new teen identity disorder while kids cut back on drugs, booze and sex.

In this week’s “Cases” column in the Science Times, Dr. Keith Ablow claims to diagnose an “identity disorder” in which teens are “at most participant-observers in their own lives, with little genuine emotion—like actors playing themselves.”

Ablow claims that “more and more, [teens] use illicit substances and alcohol to keep their genuine feelings at bay,” and he bemoans the fact that teens are increasingly “removed from reality.”

All this raises a the question of whether Ablow could use a dose of reality therapy; for the truth is that the long term trends for most adolescent drug use point downwards. Reported daily use of alcohol among 12th graders, for example, dropped from its peak of 6.9 percent in 1979, to just 2.8 percent in 2004; reported daily use of marijuana by 12th graders peaked at 10.3 percent in 1979, but was down to 5.6 percent in 2004, according to national surveys The downward trend is similar across grades and substances, for the most part (even meth use is not increasing among youth).

Ablow claims that today’s teens have sex “more and earlier” — but again, the data contradicts this assertion. The Centers for Disease Control found that reports of having “more than four sexual partners” by teens dropped 23 percent between 1991 and 2003, and while 46 percent of high school students reported being virgins in 1991, 53 percent did in 2003.

Teen pregnancy rates are also down 25 percent since 1990. Even the recent claims about an escalating epidemic of oral sex are not supported: In 1995, 39 percent of males reported performing oral sex, while 49 percent received it; in 2002, 39 percent gave and 51 percent received. A 2 point rise in males receiving fallatio is hardly cause to panic.

Ablow closes his essay by claiming that “ever-increasing rates of substance abuse and attention deficit disorder and depression lie in wait for adolescents emerging into adulthood. And, in not many decades, our nation’s sense of itself, will, inescapably, depend on theirs.”

He gets two things right: depression rates and ADD rates have indeed increased, although whether this has to do with better diagnostics and treatment rather than genuine higher prevalence of the disorders is hard to know. Teen suicide, however, is down by nearly a third since peaking in 1990, so at least in terms of surviving adolescence, here, too, teens are doing better, not worse, than prior generations.

It’s not the teenagers who are out of touch with the real world, it’s psychiatrists like Ablow, who seem determined to scare parents and demonize teens, in the face of cross-disciplinary, replicated data suggesting that they are getting better, not worse. Unfortunately, good news doesn't make for good news.