Framing Youth:
The Media War Against Kids
By Mike A. Males
Book Review By Caitlin Johnson
The Kids May Be Alright, After All
Here's a little test. Which of the following are true?
Today's kids and teens are more violent than their parents' generation. Teenagers abuse alcohol and drugs more often than adults, and more often than ever before. Teen pregnancy is skyrocketing. Kids' test scores are lower than their parents' were, and getting lower.
If you said yes to any of these, you may have been affected by what scholar and writer Mike A. Males terms a "media blitz on teens" driven by sensational anecdotes and manipulated statistics.
In fact, none of the statements is true, as Males' 1999 book, Framing Youth: Ten Myths About the Next Generation, reveals. The percentage of teens committing serious crimes has actually dropped over the past twenty years. Today's teens are far less likely to use drugs or to die of drug-related causes than are people 30 years and older, and, yes, less likely to have kids out of wedlock. But, as Males points out, they are far more likely to be associated with-and often blamed for-these social problems in newspapers, magazines and the evening news.
In eleven detailed and thought-provoking chapters, Males examines the same studies and statistics that daytime talk show experts and New York Times reporters use to back claims that U.S. teens (and adults) are overwhelmingly and increasingly in trouble because of U.S. teens.
Turns out, Males argues, that when it comes to the younger generation, we've got a lot to be proud of. Today's teens actually do a lot of good. They are more engaged in volunteering, active in their community, and-it might seem remarkable considering the world we adults have created-are generally and increasingly law-abiding.
Which is not to say that teens don't need our help. What they don't need, according to Males, is tougher punishment, tighter policing or moral realignment. In addition to debunking common myths, Framing Youth explores the real problems facing teens, who are more likely than adults to live in poverty and many of whom have limited access to adequate education and technology. Males sets about helping us "get real" so we can get involved in a meaningful way.
Killer Kids and Schoolroom Slaughter
In the book's introduction, "Myth: Todays Youth Are America's Worst Generation Ever,"Males writes: "Today we routinely hear cliched lies such as the following: yesterday's kids ran in the halls and shoplifted; today's kids gun and slaughter. The press headlines recent school shootings in Pearl, West Paduch, Jonesboro, Edinboro, Springfield, which killed a total of 11 youths over an eight-month period. None of the anguished commentary on these school tragedies mentioned that is the average number of children murdered by their parents in two days of domestic violence in the United States."
National crime statistics show that teen crime rates are actually dropping, and, media assertions notwithstanding, schools are still the safest place for kids and teens to be. Safer, even, than their homes.
Violent crime has indeed risen in the U.S. since the Fabled 50s, Males agrees, but not because of teens. The data reveal even more surprising information: serious crime trends among white and nonwhite teens have been declining for 20 years, but major crimes among white adults have been "surging steadily upward." White adults over 30 in fact show steeper increases in crime rates than any other age or ethnic group in the country-behold the real culprits behind our recent "crime wave." But you rarely read that in your local paper.
Running "Mild in the Streets"
When it comes to drugs, Males might say that what we have is a failure to communicate-the truth, that is. There's plenty of dialogue and coverage of the issue, but too much of it is just plain wrong.
"Baby boom youths suffered death rates from drugs such as heroin and barbituates double to triple that of today's youth," Males writes. And they continue to use, abuse and die from drugs and alcohol at much higher rates than the so-called reckless teen "wastoids." Adolescent health and behavior are improving, not declining, and Males argues that if there's a new trend, it's a tendency to be surprisingly "mild in the streets."
So why do the myths of teens as drugged-out, reckless superpredators persist in the media? According to Males, it's partly disbelief. "That America's most affluent, aging population should show the largest rise in serious crime [and drug abuse] fits no known theory of criminology, " Males writes. Instead of addressing the complex and nuanced issues that do plague our nation's youth, adults have found it easier-for myriad reasons Males explores-to turn an often subtle "racism and fear of youth" into an assertion that teens are plaguing us. That teens of all races and backgrounds have come to symbolize the American nightmare of crime, alcoholism, drug abuse, promiscuity.
Certainly, today's teens face significant obstacles and risks. But most stem from adults, not peers-and from societal problems like oppression and poverty. Rising crime, violence, and drug abuse do impact our youth, and therefore deserve attention-but they also deserve perspective. When we term populations "at-risk," Males urges, let's consider whom we characterize this way, and why.
Telling it Like it Ain't
Politically, Males claims allegiance with neither conservatives nor liberals. He systematically outlines arguments and assumptions offered by those in on the right, on the left and even in the middle, and offers enough data and context to cast a reasonable doubt on many "facts" about our country and our kids, truths we have long held self-evident. And he is unafraid to tackle thorny issues of race and economics that shape so much of the media coverage-and indeed, the lives-of today's kids and teens. Males calls for a more honest, direct discourse on the impacts of race, racism and economic stability.
Almost as if he were himself a kid, Males seems to ask, "Why?" over and over until he gets to the bottom of the rhetoric and gets to the raw data underlining the almost-daily media messages about our "killer kids" and youth in crisis. The result is a book that's highly readable, substantial and never too technical. Males' steady, biting and witty prose engages and entertains as it instructs. It's encouraging, too. He succeeds in giving readers the tools to look critically at stories offering isolated episodes as the next "Alarming New Teen Trend" and put them in perspective.
Consistently interesting, Framing Youth can be read from beginning to end, or flipped open and read a section at a time. A word of caution: don't pick up the book when you have something important to do. It's easy to read, but not so easy to put down.
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