Adolescence is often described as a period of increased impulsive and risk-taking behaviour. Binge drinking, rash driving, doing ‘macho stuff’ for a dare and unsafe sex are contemporary forms of such behaviour. This behaviour can lead to fatal outcomes—accidents, suicide, HIV. To this disquieting list we could add less dangerous but equally morbid behaviour such as tattooing, self harm, and an almost narcissistic or even neurotic view of one’s own body.
In this article, I seek to review the nature of adolescent risk-taking behaviour. I will attempt to trace the cultural context in which this behaviour is encouraged, and then briefly suggest what we as educators in schools can do.
Nineteen eighty-three could be taken as a watershed year for the purposes of looking at adolescent risk behaviour. Why 19 83 and not any other year? Well, that was the year the world woke up to HIV / AIDS, a couple of years after the first such case was diagnosed in Los Angeles. Since then the HIV/AIDS epidemic has spread far and wide, borne on the wings of casual unprotected sex, multiple sexual partners, intravenous drug use and unsafe blood transfusions. In a way the epidemic is reflective of the times we live in, the lifestyles that are espoused for young people, the extreme preoccupation with material benefits and self-gratification, the lack of cultural rootedness, the lack of stable relationships and so on.
I will confine myself here to substance abuse and sex, which seem to be the most indicative of adolescent risk-taking behaviour. I will draw upon anecdotal as well as researched findings that indicate alarming shifts in teen behaviour, which pose a grave social and educational challenge.
Some indicators of adolescent risk
Soma rasa was probably the first ever recorded use of plant alkaloids by man. Alcohol use, at times profligate, has been documented in most ancient civilizations. Over the years some of these drugs were used not just for their presumed therapeutic effects, but also for recreational purposes, to enhance pleasure and relieve stress. What we find today is that alcohol is no more considered a drug or dangerous substance. Adolescence is typically when the first initiation into substance use takes place. For adolescents today, ‘hanging out’ often involves beer drinking in a pub listening to rock music. Some adolescents may move on to sharing a joint. New and often more harmful drugs and patterns of use are replacing traditional practices and initiation rites. In recent years the consumption of licit (tobacco, alcohol) as well as illicit substances has increased greatly throughout the world. The trends indicate a tendency to take to these substances at an earlier age.
Studies in India show that substance use is significantly more among urban students as compared to rural students. Students are particularly susceptible due to, in part, increasing academic pressures. The encouragement by peer groups, the need to be seen as ‘cool’ or ‘hep’, easy availability of many such substances like alcohol, tobacco (cigarettes and gutkha) and other drugs, as well as aggressive advertising, make urban teenagers an easy prey. Males seem to be more prone to substance abuse. What has emerged is that living away from parents is often a significant factor in this.
Unsafe sex seems to be the single most important indicator of adolescent risk-taking behaviour, the world over. Adolescence is the period when attractions and sexual experimentation begins. In the past few decades sex has become more casual, with the onset of sexual activity occurring at an earlier age, leading to more sexual partners, less consistent use of condoms, and more sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). In India, studies have documented a rising number of teen pregnancies and STIs (Sexually Transmitted Infections). Most of this evidence is anecdotal and has not been scientifically validated. It is only in the recent past that a few institutions have taken up studying this aspect amongst urban youth. Not surprisingly, substance abusing youth reported an earlier age of first intercourse, multiple sexual partners as well as higher rates of STIs, and more substance-abusing females reported pregnancies than other females who did not indulge in substance abuse. Substance involvement continued to be associated with high-risk sexual behaviour throughout the transition into young adulthood.
What makes adolescents take risks?
We may all agree that youth in general indulge in the sort of behaviour which mature adults do not. This has been the lament of the older generation since the time of Socrates and Plato.
But have we ever stopped to consider why this has come to assume such heightened proportions today?
At one level, we need to be aware that chemical and neuronal changes in the adolescent brain make them prone to taking risks. There is an individual propensity, which acts in conjunction with the reward centres in the brain and makes an adolescent unmindful of the risks involved in a decision he or she makes. However, parental as well as peer influences also seem to play an important part in shaping teen minds. But is that all there is to the propensity to indulge in risk-taking behaviour? Is there something we are missing here? I think there is. And to uncover this we need to take a hard look at the ‘cultural’ influences children and youth of today are increasingly subject to.
Music, media, movies, and maggi: The four ‘M’s of today’s pop culture
It has been widely recognized that influences of popular culture, propagated by the media, are probably the strongest in shaping adolescent minds—even more than the peer driven behaviour norm. After all, the peer group also gets its messages from somewhere! Let us take a look at four factors that might influence the urban teenager’s world view and choices.
Popular music is increasingly the staple auditory diet for young people. I took the liberty of asking some of my students for the lyrics of the songs that they listen to. I must thank the students of Classes 11 and 12 who unknowingly and unwittingly gave me the lyrics of the songs. These are teenage boys and girls—most of them urban, upper-middle class—in a co-educational residential school. I was certainly shocked. Blatant sexuality, sadomasochism and the portrayal of girls as sex figures, are all there in these lyrics. There are absolutely no positive messages in such songs. There is nothing to be found about the more subtle dimensions of a relationship, about developing a sense of responsibility; none about planned sex, responsible use of a condom etc. It is estimated that between 40 per cent and 60 per cent of the songs listened to by teens have explicit sexual content.
What could be the state of mind of a teenager who is constantly exposed to such lyrics? Moreover, Music Television portrays these songs live and music videos leave nothing to the imagination of the adolescent viewer. Studies have shown that teens constantly exposed to such ‘degrading’ music quickly move up the ladder from hand holding to advanced non-coital sexual intimacy to coitus itself. Much of this sex is unprotected and frequently involves multiple partners as well. In contrast those teens that grew up also listening to ‘non-degrading’ music—classical music, folk songs, hymns, choral singing—were less, definitely less, likely to indulge in promiscuous behaviour.
The average youth spends about a third of each day exposed to audio-visual and print media in the form of television, internet and teen magazines. The majority of this exposure occurs outside of the parental domain, some of it illicitly, some of it in groups (both same sex as well as mixed sex) and some to the accompaniment of alcohol or other mood enhancing substances. The influence of the mass media on a broad range of behaviours and attitudes including violence, eating disorders, tobacco and alcohol use is well known. There have been surprisingly few studies that have examined the effects of mass media on adolescent sexual attitudes and behaviours. A seminal work on this aspect is referred to in this article (by S Liliana Ecobar Chaves et al).
Let us look at the impact of each of the three kinds of media listed above, and the manner in which they reinforce each other.
There have been several studies on the impact of television viewing on children and adolescents. Television is ubiquitous and it is not uncommon to find teenagers watching television in the privacy of their own rooms. To begin with seemingly the most innocuous of these effects, obesity is positively linked to the number of hours a teen spends in front of the television. Obviously prolonged inactivity as well as greater access to junk food causes this. A strong positive correlation also exists between violence on television and aggression among youth. Young people, it is estimated, are exposed to more than 10, 000 episodes of violence in a year. Of greater concern is that attractive role models are the aggressors in more than 80 per cent of music videos. In much of violent television programming, there is a tendency to strongly reinforce and justify violence (Hey, the ‘good guys’ are beating up the ‘bad guys’!). When it comes to tobacco or alcohol use, again a very strong positive correlation with television viewing emerges. In more than 80 per cent of cases the first encounter with alcohol or tobacco was by age 15 and advertising on television was a strong influence. (Reference: Strasburger et al from their study).
With regard to sexual attitudes and behaviour, recent studies have reinforced the anecdotal evidence that indicated the impact of television. The most favoured channels like MTV, Channel V, and even movie channels have explicit sexual content (about 83 per cent of such programming has sexual content and about 20 per cent have explicit sexual content). When we look at ‘family soaps’, the situation is even worse. Infidelity, extra and pre-marital sex are frequently portrayed (with no negative consequences shown). So what are the effects of such television viewing? Broadly, adolescents become more permissive to sexual relations, precautions are not even considered, and in most cases there is early initiation to sex.
Personal computers with the internet have found their way into many a home; and even those without personal access to this medium are able to browse freely in the mushrooming internet ‘cafes’. In many ways, this medium is even more pernicious than television. Whereas the interested parent can at least view the content of television along with his child, the internet tends to remain a secluded private experience for the teen user. Very little is known about the effects of the net on young minds and how it has shaped their development. In a study in the US, 14 per cent of teens reported that they had accessed material that they would not like their parents to see. In many cases it was inadvertent, following a link, which popped up as they were chatting or surfing. Type in ‘sex pictures’ in Google and you will get access to more than a million sites. Of greater concern is the fact that 20 per cent of teens were exposed to unwanted sexual solicitation while on the net. Internet chat rooms and virtual meeting places provide access to the sharks that are always hungrily sniffing for their prey. Added to this is the fact that many alcohol companies advertise through the internet, which in many cases remains unsupervised by parents.
Fashion and Teen Magazines
Eating disorders such as anorexia (a serious and potentially fatal condition characterized by a disturbed body image and self imposed severe dietary limitation usually resulting in serious malnutrition) and bulimia (episodic, uncontrolled, compulsive and rapid ingestion of large amounts of food over a short period of time or binge eating followed by self-induced vomiting, use of laxatives and diuretics, fasting or vigorous exercise in order to prevent weight gain) are often linked to a high consumption of fashion magazines along with television viewing. For those who had successfully come out of anorexia, there was a decrease in the amount of time spent either with television or with magazines. The need to look like the models in the magazines seems to be the driving need behind adolescents with anorexia. Teen ‘girlie’ magazines also devote a fair amount of space to sex and related issues. ‘Ten ways to hook your guy’, ‘Make him think you are sexy’ and such titles are favourites on the covers. Also avidly read are the agony aunt/ uncle columns and those with regard to fashions and outfits. The message which goes out to the girls is that they need to be attractive and sexy to get their man. Today there are a number of similar magazines to cater to the metro-sexual groovy male. They tell young males precisely how to look, dress, what to say, how to be attractive to girls.
So where does all this lead us to? It is not uncommon to find teens hooked to all the above media; in fact, some of them can be found doing three or four different things at the same time. Do we have any idea what happens to typical teenagers with cumulative exposure to multiple sensory inputs from the television, internet and magazines? Does it not lead to altered behaviour, shifting sexual mores, increasing risk-taking tendencies? Anecdotal evidence certainly seems to point that way. What is needed is further scientific research.
Hasantha Gunasekhara and his colleagues (from the Institute of Child Health Research, Children’s Hospital at Westmead, Australia) analysed the portrayal of sex and drugs in the top 200 movies from 19 83 onwards. The source of their study was the Internet Movie Database (www.imdb.com). The exclusion criteria for their study included those rated G (general)/ PG (parental guidance), animated movies and movies set in the pre-HIV era (pre-19 83). They studied 87 movies (for example: Pulp Fiction, V for Vendetta etc.) and came up with the following observations. There were 53 sex episodes in 28 (32%) of the 87 movies reviewed. There was only one suggestion of condom use, which was the only reference to any form of birth control. There were no depictions of important consequences of unprotected sex such as unwanted pregnancies, HIV or other STDs. Movies showing cannabis (8%) and other non-injected illicit drugs (7%) were less common than those with alcohol intoxication (32%) and tobacco use (68%), but tended to portray their use positively and without negative consequences. There were no episodes of injected drug use.
The evidence is damning. However, the entertainment industry refuses to accept the causal relationship between what it portrays and increasing teen risk-taking behaviour; much like the tobacco industry refusing to accept causal relationship between cigarette smoking and ill-health. Ostrich like, it continues churning out movies that can have an adverse impact on young viewers.
I have used the word Maggi to epitomize the needs and aspirations of today’s teens. Maggi noodles are easily made: just boil some water, dump the stuff in it and voilà you have ‘food’. It serves to instantly gratify the adolescent taste buds as well as fill the stomach. One may ask how an adolescent can eat Maggi, which by its uniform tastelessness, might make any self-respecting gourmand retch? Ask an adolescent or more importantly ask the copywriter who conceived the advertisement that makes Maggi so appealing to the youth. One can stretch this allegory to cover almost any form of instant self-gratification, which for today’s youth-in-a-hurry means that there is much more time to do other stuff. After all you do not have to think when you are munching junk food, reading a magazine, surfing the net and listening to music a good part of the same time.
After this survey of popular culture, we return to our original question: What makes adolescents take risks?
We know that many factors may make teens prone to risk-taking behaviour. Some of the most important risk factors are related to race, poverty, peer influences, parental influence (or lack of it) and last but not the least the influence of the media, which in many ways acts as a ‘super peer’.
There is also evidence that there is a large variability amongst the teen cohort in respect to why some adolescents take risks and why others do not. These findings suggest that, rather than attribute risk-taking to simple changes in impulsivity during adolescence, some individuals may be especially prone to engage in risky behaviours. This is due to developmental changes in concert with variability in a given individual’s predisposition to engage in risky behaviour. Studies have also shown that impulse behaviour decreases with age (probably this is why exasperated parents suddenly round on their children telling them, ‘Why don’t you grow up/ act your age!’). But in many cases, the damage, alluded to at the beginning of the article, may have already been done.
One might point back to that obvious factor, peer pressure, as the most important determinant of risk-taking in adolescents. Peer pressure that is nourished in the crucible of popular culture. But then what drives peer pressure? Does it start from one teen, or a group of them who come together, or is it in fact a well-orchestrated campaign by adults? Here, I would like to underline my own viewpoint.
Who are the culprits?
Who writes for the movies? Who are the editors of fashion magazines? Who puts up sexual content on the internet? Who promotes conspicuous consumption? Who markets lifestyles? These are the questions that come to mind when I read about risk-taking behaviour amongst teens. It is easy to believe that there is some crazed nerdy teen churning out programming for television, music videos or the movies, but is that a fact? When I reflect on these questions the finger points squarely back to me. By that I mean adults of my generation, in their 40s, who, as parents, teachers, managers, copywriters, script writers and movie producers have allowed, nay encouraged, the youth of today to become their worst enemies.
It seems to me that the worst offenders might include those well-meaning adults who say that children should be brought up in ‘freedom’ and allowed to make their own choices. It includes those working parents who trust their teens’ maturity to sort the ‘wheat from the chaff’. In permissive societies that are burgeoning the world over, there is invariably no one at home or in school to guide children through their growing up years. So young people of the world fall back on what they read, see or hear, to form a sense of who they are in the world. And what do they encounter? It is a world that has been created by their own parents’ generation.
So in a sense when we say that today’s youth are degenerate, materialistic or use any such term, I think the finger points back to us. It is we who have failed to instil in the youth of today a value system that would help them grow up to be responsible human beings.
What to do
Tough question! Do we impose bans, do we have net and television nannies, do we ban advertising, and do we keep children at home? None of this seems possible in any way.
The answer probably lies in a re-thinking of our priorities and a coherent strategy. It needs to start at home, the first place where stable, nurturing relationships can be formed and sustained. It must include risk education and sex education, made available appropriately to the growing child. Most importantly parents and teachers, the two most important stakeholders in the growth of any child, must together take responsibility to help the next generation grow with a sense of ease and well being.
Going back to the HIV question, it is more than 25 years since the recognition of this dread disease. It takes about ten years for an HIV positive person to develop AIDS. So those who have developed or who are suffering from AIDS in their 40s must have contracted the infection when they were in the teens. Could education at that point have made a difference? Possibly yes.
Never before in the history of humankind have youth had access to so many choices, many of which are potentially harmful. We adults have to take our share of the responsibility and stop blaming the youth for their hedonistic lifestyles. It behoves us—parents, teachers, educators and all adults—to work together to help young adolescents make intelligent choices about the life they are going to lead and the world they are going to create.