Leading Article: If boys would only be more like girls

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The Independent Online
Here is the good news: about 75 per cent of teenagers live with two parents, 80 per cent do not go to discos every week, 40 per cent take a bath or a shower every day, 70 per cent do not smoke, 70 per cent get on better with their parents than with other adults, lots turn to their mothers for help with problems at school, and 80 per cent of boys brush their teeth twice a day.

Those are a few nuggets from the annual survey by the Schools Health Education Unit, published today. The survey helps to counter the common impression that today's teenagers are a homogeneous tribe of unwashed, drug-addicted rebels from broken homes who hate their parents. In reality there are huge swaths of functioning families out there, with children who wash, do their homework, think about their careers and look to their parents for sex education. So the end of civilisation may be postponed for a generation or two.

But a lot depends on how the survey is read, and whether all of it is believable. Do teenagers always tell the truth about drugs, alcohol and when they last brushed their teeth? Is it not worrying that 18 per cent of girls between 14 and 16 go to school without breakfast and 10 per cent (from a different group, one hopes) have no lunch? Why do 30 per cent of young people aged 15- 16 feel driven to smoke, although 75 per cent of these would like to give it up? And if 13 per cent of boys aged 15-16 have taken synthetic hallucinogens, that is far too large a number.

There are wide, dark areas in the subculture of youth that surveys such as this can only hint at. Probably there is less misery and deviance than people assume, but there is also more than there should be. Behind the statistics are individuals whose lives cannot be told in figures.

If there is hope for the country's future, it seems to lie mainly with the girls. They are said to work harder, read more, eat better and take fewer drugs, although years of feminist effort have not stopped them worrying about how they look. Since women under 30 also drive better than men, according to the insurance industry, they should get their reward by living longer. John Balding, director of the Schools Health Unit, is obviously right when he suggests that we would all be better off if boys would only learn from girls.

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