Risk Factors: New Pressures Facing Youth

This is the fifth of six posts today in honor of the election of Barack Obama as the next President of the United States.

In my current position in Washington’s state health agency I am surrounding by alarmist pronouncements about youth today: peer pressure, depression, suicide, violence, alcohol and other drug use, anorexia, bulimia, antisocial behavior and alienation/delinquent beliefs/general delinquency involvement, drug dealing, gun possession/illegal gun ownership/carrying, teen parenthood, attitudes toward drug use, intellectual and/or development disabilities, victimization and exposure to violence, poor refusal skills, life stressors, early sexual involvement, mental disorder/mental health problems, low academic achievement, negative attitude toward school/low bonding/low school attachment/commitment to school, truancy/frequent absences, suspension, dropping out of school, inadequate school climate/poorly organized and functioning schools/negative labeling by teachers, identified as learning disabled, frequent school transitions, gang involvement/gang membership, peer alcohol, tobacco and other drug use, association with delinquent/aggressive peers and peer rejection are among some of the issues addressed in the public health field, and in my experience are among the predominant discussions among the professionals who make policies and decisions, provide training and technical assistance, conduct assessments and evaluations focused on children and youth every day.

There are a lot of challenges in that alone. However, I think the primary among them is the reality that they aren’t really addressing the new pressures youth face today. Here are 10 emerging “risk factors” young people face right now:

  • Education hegemony. Schools billing themselves as opening the doors to opportunity are actually determining what young people will do as adults, including attending college, going to prison, becoming parents and getting civically engaged. The education industry exerts enormous influence on the lives of young people, drowning out the voices of students themselves, as well as parents, community leaders and others who should be there.
  • Cultural disenfranchisement. Where young people were once responsible for creating authentic cultural expressions, today they have been relegated to being sounding boards for youth marketers who want to sell a manufactured youth culture.
  • Enforced alienation. With the increased fear of youth permeating society it comes as no surprise that children and youth are tucked away into child care, schools, after school programs, and other venues, away from adults and communities, more than ever before.
  • Decimation of the Commons. “The Public” is a wonderful and nebulous body, making society real and tangible for all of us. What happens when The Public’s best interests are determined by Private forces? Well, we’re finding out in schools, on highways, in airports, and though out other Public services once accountable to the levers of Democracy, and now increasingly and exclusively in the hands of the Private sector. This is the world young people are growing up in today.
  • Growing segregation. As young people are sent away, tucked away and otherwise alienated from their surrounding age groups, their communities, schools, youth programs, places of worship, parks and other connection points are becoming increasingly racially, economically and socially segregated.
  • Transitioning communities. American communities are on the move, changing and transitioning into a different space than they’ve ever been before. In that transition, which is economic, cultural, and social, young people are being left out and forgotten. Economic crises are causing governments to eliminate funding for youth programs; changing social mores are transforming neighborhoods and neighborhood institutions right now. Children and youth today are directly affected by this movement.
  • Increasing surveillance. For eight or nine hours a day young people are held accountable for every action, every word, and every expression they share to the people around them. Before and after school, parents are installing Internet monitors, in-home camera systems and voting for graduated drivers licences. More than ever before children and youth live in a surveillance society.
  • Isolationism. In a time when they are routinely alienated and segregated within their own communities and throughout their own country, young people today are learning about isolationism and imperialism through the aggressive politics of the Presidential administration of the last eight years. Children and youth have grown up in that image, and it has influenced their politics now and will throughout their entire lives.
  • Technological alienation. In a time when the world is thrusting forward and calling for unparalleled development in the technology field young people are receiving a converse message from their parents, the media and politicians. So many adults are calling for young people to stop using the very devices they are being forced to use that its no wonder young people are texting in languages adults don’t understand, building websites with scripts they’ve never seen, and mobilizing social networks in ways adults can’t imagine. That alienation is another factor.
  • Ephebiphobia. The fear of youth is the bane of all young people, and affects every person.

These are the real pressures, the new risk factors. Not oppositional defiant disorder. Let’s have honest, open and frank conversations that address the urgent realities of youth right now, rather than the possible risks of an unimaginable future.

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