Behind the stereotypes: The shocking truth about teenagers

As another report complains about Britain's children, a generation is being stigmatised as promiscuous, unhealthy and violent. But are we being unfair, giving teenagers a hard time for no real reason?

Robert Verkaik
Monday 23 October 2006 00:00 BST

"Watch out! - I am from the evil and hated generation. Believe it or not, not every single teenager around my age goes around beating up people and smashing up cars. Can you seriously claim that today's youth are that much worse than the mods and rockers of the former generation? My generation never gets a positive thing said about them - GCSEs for example - we do better than the past generation and the courses must be getting easier - obviously. Is it really any wonder then certain youths rebel?"

Charlie, from Bristol, didn't know it, but by posting those words on a BBC website yesterday, he became the unofficial spokesperson for a generation of young Britons fed up with being demonised as either "Kevin the teenager" or a gun-toting hoodie.

His anger was echoed by dozens of other young people provoked into responding to a report that claimed British adults were more scared of teenagers than ever before.

The report's authors, the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), also warn today of the growing dangers of soaring rates of sexually-transmitted infections among teenagers and the lowering of the average age at which young people first have sex.

Next month, the IPPR plans to release the full report, containing more bad news about teenagers, including deficiencies in education and diet as well as an addiction to designer labels for clothes and gadgets.

Those reports will no doubt be accompanied by further headlines about children being so obese that their only hope is surgery, falling standards in schools or stories of Uzi-toting teenage muggers. That, of course, all leads to the inescapable conclusion that the British teenager is a monster best avoided.

Or could it be that young people growing up in this country are being deliberately misunderstood by politicians and headline writers who wish to use them to suit their own ends?

In the words of Harry Enfield's creation, Kevin the teenager: "It's so unfair."

Yesterday, the case against the British teenager was being led by the IPPR who claimed that more than 1.5 million Britons had considered moving home because of young people "hanging around" their neighbourhood.

According to the report, British adults are also twice as likely than German adults to cross the road when they encounter teenagers committing anti-social behaviour.

Some of the reasons Britons were too frightened to get involved included being physically attacked, fear of reprisals and being verbally abused.

But not one of these fears appears to be borne out by the facts.

According to NACRO, the penal reform charity, youth crime actually fell between 1993 and 2001 while Britain has one of the lowest crime rates among children in the whole of Europe.

That isn't something that always comes across when politicians are talking tough on law and order. Tony Blair's "respect" campaign and the national "respect squad" set up by John Reid, only reinforce the adult fear factor of teenagers, a condition the report refers to as paedophobia.

Labour, spurred on by sensational headlines about gangs of teenagers terrorising neighbourhoods, have been quick to turn soundbites into actions and introduced criminal justice measures deliberately targeting problem children.

Since 1999, 2,000 Asbos have been issued against young people while new policies, many championed by Labour-friendly think tanks, are aimed at making it easier to prosecute children.

David Cameron's Conservatives have only muddied the waters by advocating tougher punishments for adolescent misbehaviour while at the same time urging everyone to "hug a hoodie."

No wonder teenagers such as Charlie are so confused.

Sam, another young person upset by the report, told the BBC yesterday: "Respect seems to be demanded here, why should we as a youth just give respect, it should be earned. The vast majority of youth do these things as there is nothing else to do. It is simply a period everyone goes through before they can get into the pubs. I have done a lot of the things mentioned but I am at university studying politics now. It is a age-old argument but people seem to have very short term memories, look back at cartoons from the 50 and 60's and it was the same argument."

Gemma, who also felt compelled to speak out, adds: "It is elderly people who think this and stereotype all young people in the same category. Again it is the few who ruin life for the rest of us. Not all young people are 'yobs' or 'tyrants'. If we were to stereotype older people in this kind or biased way we would be told off!!!"

The sense that our young people are increasingly being demonised is also shared by many people outside their age bracket.

Pam Hibbert, principal policy officer for Barnados, says that wearing hoodies and meeting friends on street corners is all part of the growing up process.

She said: "We have become fearful of all children. We know for example young crime in itself has remained fairly static in the past 10 years - it is a minority that cause problems and retaliate. The demonisation of children and young people in some sections of the media and when politicians refer to youngsters as yobs - that breeds the actual fear."

Ms Hibbert said the reason adults' fear had grown was a lack of activities involving young people and adults. "Respect is not a one way process. Bad behaviour by adults is almost celebrated in today's society but when youngsters misbehave people say they do not have any respect. Respect is about all of us getting together."

Claire Rayner, one of Britain's foremost agony aunts, said: "I think everyone's getting very excited about this but what they don't realise is that every generation fears the next one, believing them to be source of all evil. I have a little notice hanging up in my house which complains about young children not standing up when adults come into room and other things. These are the words of Socrates. All this goes to show is that this has been a problem for a long time. We mustn't be afraid of teenagers, instead we would be better off starting off a conversation with them instead."

Often lost in the rush to paint a bleak picture of children is the fact that they too are often victims. Elaine Peace, UK director of children's services at NCH, the children's charity, said that teenagers were more likely to be the victim of a crime than the perpetrator: "Young people are 10 times more likely to be actively volunteering in the community than committing offences and young people are more likely to be victims of crime than adults. The media is fuelling stereotypes of children and the fear of young people. We should be highlighting the fantastic work young people do in the community. We need to do more to involve older people in the community - mentoring schemes would be one option to help change perceptions."

In the meantime, teenagers will have to brace themselves for more negative stereotyping.

The full IPPR report, an investigation into 30 years of research on young people, will reveal teenagers to be facing a growing obesity problem, experiencing huge inequalities in education and hooked on product branding.

But, in the same way that all teenagers are different, the truth about young people in Britain is not as straightforward as politicians, the media and influential think-tanks would have us believe.

Recently a report by the University of Lancaster contradicted the commonly held perception that all teenagers are couch potatoes. It found that 10 and 11-year-olds still make more than 60 per cent of their journeys on foot.

Another study suggests the rate of obesity among children has remained relatively stable and that it was problem that had been overhyped.

The Social Issues Research Council, which is funded by food companies as well as the Government, said average child weights have only risen slightly.

SIRC, which compared average weights in 1995 and 2003, said obesity levels have started to rise among older teenagers but the middle-aged were most at risk.

The implied accusation by some social commentators that Britain's teenage population is less educated than previous generations is also turning out to be something of a myth.

Education standards have improved in both A-levels and GCSEs and independent studies have failed to prove that either exam is getting easier.

Meanwhile, international surveys suggest that Britain's primary schools now have the third highest literacy rates in the world.

Even the IPPR concedes that many of these stereotypes about teenagers may be unjustified.

Nick Pearce, IPPR Director, says: "The debate about childhood in Britain is polarised between false opposites: that either children or adults are to blame. It also ignores inequalities in the transition to adulthood. Many children are safer, healthier and better educated than in the past, whilst others suffer complex, traumatic routes through adolescence.

"Complex structural changes to modern society, coupled with changes to how young people behave, have produced this situation," he added.

Sadhia Khan, 17


"It's very unfair to group teenagers as 'problematic' for society. Most of us just aren't like that. I have so many extra-curricular hobbies; I have been in a debating society, I play tennis and badminton and the piano. I don't tend to meet my friends on the street but go shopping with them or meet for meals. The media's image of teenagers and these negative reports that have recently been published tend to focus on the idea that young people misbehave and just hang around doing nothing. That's not true for many of us. We have a lot of pressures in our lives, socially and academically. I've applied to do medicine at university like my sister, and many of us are hoping to achieve in life and make a positive impact in society, yet that is an image that rarely comes across in debates on teenage life. My group of friends is highly motivated. Every time I pick up a newspaper or hear another TV report about teenagers, it is always demonising us, rather than reflecting the reality for most of us. At the end of a schoolday, when we sometimes go shopping together, we're looked at suspiciously because we are taking up so much space. People are quite judgmental about teenagers, how we look, where we go, and I think it's a shame that middle-class children are treated with more respect than maybe someone who's wearing a hoodie."

Ed Chapman, 17


"The majority of teenagers are fairly well behaved, and I don't believe there's a higher percentage of teenagers causing trouble than adults, so it is not specifically a teenager problem. Young people are a visible target because for many, their only option is to meet outside the home. I spend time regularly hanging around the estate because that is how we socialise - we can't really have so many friends round to the house - but we don't cause any trouble and we have a good relationship with the residents. The police stop us fairly regularly which I find irritating. Two of my friends were stopped and searched by an officer who was rude and aggressive when they were doing nothing wrong. I have been stopped and searched twice and asked questions four or five times. I'm a Scout leader and help to look after around 50 kids every week, and am responsible for taking them on camps. I plan to go to university and become a barrister."

Jennifer Whitfield, 14


"The perception that people have of all teenagers as troublemakers annoys me. It's just a small section of young people that are out to cause trouble. When I'm shopping with friends, I notice that we're followed around by a shop assistant who stays behind us at all times as if we are going to do something wrong. Of course, there are teenagers who spend time hanging around on street corners but they are not all trying to scare adults, just trying to have a good time with their friends, and they have nowhere else to gather. People tend to assume they are causing trouble when they are actually just standing there. It's wrong to judge teenagers, who in the majority, are not out to harm others but just to have fun. Sometimes I'll go to the park with friends but not often. Most of the time, I play netball and the saxophone in the concert band at college, or go camping with my family in holidays but not everyone can afford to do these things, so maybe that's why some stand on the street, to meet and chat."

Helena Gavrielides, 16


"There are so many teenagers who are good citizens. Most teenagers do drink but it depends where they do it. I think it's silly to drink standing on a street, and I understand that can be intimidating for adults. But it's difficult because not everyone's doing this, although people are going to pick up on the worst cases. I go to a liberal comprehensive school. The younger children meet on the street and I've seen police asking them to move although they were not doing anything. Elderly people seem suspicious of young people, even when we are polite, as if they assume we are going to steal their bags.

I've got friends who do charity work so it's not all about us drinking, and drugs and partying. I am busy every night except one with yoga, choir and piano and I've just taken a course to qualify as a swim instructor. With reports on obese teenagers, a lot of young people are really stressed about being overweight. I see so many girls on diets, and I don't think reports on obesity do anything to help their self image."

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