America’s Teenagers – Myths and Realities: Media Images, Schooling, and the Social Costs of Careless Indifference
reviewed by Rebecca Raby - 2004
Title: America’s Teenagers – Myths and Realities: Media Images, Schooling, and the Social Costs of Careless Indifference
Author(s): Sharon L. Nichols, Thomas L. Good
Publisher: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., Mahwah, NJ
ISBN: 0805848517, Pages: 264, Year: 2004
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Sharon L. Nichols and Thomas L. Good join a number of recent scholars concerned with the representation of today’s youth as problems to both themselves and the rest of society. Covering a gamut of “trouble spots,” from violence and drug use, to poor eating habits, Nichols and Good sort the myths from the evidence to provide a comprehensive overview of challenges currently facing teenagers in the United States. The authors conclude that a variety of media negatively and inaccurately represent youth in a way that sensationalizes and homogenizes them. For example, while media representations of young people suggest that their violence, sexual activity and drug use have been increasing in recent years, Nichols and Good draw on various statistical surveys, most prominently the Public Agenda polls of 1997 and 1999, to indicate that teenage involvement in each of these activities has been decreasing.
Nichols and Good find that despite such decreases American young people are being not only maligned, but also ignored and neglected: “Increasingly, society is asking its adolescents to self-socialize and then blaming them when they get into trouble” (p.170). Limited public resources and services are available to teenagers, despite the success rates of some awareness campaigns, anti-violence programs, and school sex education programs. Nichols and Good conclude that adults need to be much more involved in the lives of teenagers overall; we need to invest in them and to make time for them, both of which teenagers want.
America’s Teenagers – Myths and Realities is an important resource for advocates of teenagers as the authors provide strong, empirical support for their argument and examine a wide range of relevant topic areas. The book opens with a chapter on violence in the media (primarily television), with attention to the kind of violence presented and the degree of young people’s exposure to it, particularly in comparison to adults. The authors note that teenagers as a group watch less television than other age groups. It is fitting that the following chapter addresses youth violence directly, for Nichols and Good argue that while data suggest that young people’s violent crime has either decreased or remained fairly constant since the early 1990s, media portrayals exaggerate youth violence, with harsh consequences for teenagers in the criminal justice system. In fact, youth are more likely to be the victims of crime, especially sexual victimization and bullying. Finally, the authors contextualize youth crime by examining contributing environmental factors.
The following chapter discusses sex and sexuality in the lives of adolescents. Again, while the media can be useful for teaching young people about sexuality, the media can mislead them and exaggerate young people’s sexual activity. Pregnancy, abortion and STDs, while still issues to address, have all decreased. Nichols and Good weigh differing forms of sex education and stress the need for comprehensive (rather than abstinence-only) education. From sexual health, the book progresses to physical health with a focus on tobacco, alcohol, and drugs. Detailed statistics on rates of tobacco, alcohol, and drug use are provided alongside reflection on the complexity of measuring such rates. Overall, however, Nichols and Good argue that rates are in decline. In this chapter, the authors emphasize the mixed messages that young people receive: they are taught to “just say no” and yet smoking and drinking are advertised as attractive, and celebrated adult role models use drugs. They also explore the effectiveness of different kinds of anti-smoking campaigns, finding that implicit campaigns are more successful. Nichols and Good proceed to examine eating habits, sleeping, and fitness with a focus on ways that schools, in particular, can support young people in practicing wellness. The final two chapters examine work and school, the first exploring the kinds of jobs young people do, the hours they wor,k and the effect that various forms and quantities of work have on educational attainment; and the second providing a critical, in-depth examination of national testing.
Each chapter discusses media representations of youth alongside contrasting statistics, examines the challenges of collecting and presenting relevant statistics, introduces and evaluates potential solutions that can be initiated within schools, and contemplates where more research is needed. Nichols and Good consistently argue for studies addressing why teenagers are viewed so negatively and what teenagers themselves think of such representations.
Accessible and broad, with many user-friendly graphs, charts, quizzes, and models, America’s Teenagers – Myths and Realities is well-structured as a text for use in undergraduate classrooms. Undergraduates and other readers may find this book a little dry, however, due to repetition and the sacrifice of depth for breadth. Sections of the book, such as those addressing historical patterns, race and gender, and those reflecting on the meaning of the data presented are, in places, fleeting. Occasionally such surface analyses are also of political concern. At one point, for instance, the authors briefly gesture towards the possibility of bias in the overrepresentation of minorities in arrests, but they quickly veer away, stating that “…a critical first step is to stop blaming and embrace a better awareness of the scope of the issues” (p. 76). Such dismissive statements are not only superficial but troubling in light of race-based inequalities in the United States and elsewhere. Perhaps in such places the authors could refer readers to other, more comprehensive sources.
Unfortunately, there are also several sections of the text where Nichols and Good undermine their own arguments. For example, after providing a strong argument for the unreliability of national testing and its results, the authors proceed to draw on such results in making later arguments on behalf of certain forms of schooling. In the chapter on tobacco, alcohol, and drugs they argue that many young people do not engage in such activities but begin the chapter with a broad statement that teenagers take risks and like to do what they’re not supposed to. More troubling, while addressing the importance of teaching acceptance of homosexuality in schools, the entire topic of homosexuality is discussed only in the section on HIV/AIDS. This placement problematically reproduces the myth that homosexuality is dangerous and that HIV/AIDS is a gay disease.
Overall, America’s Teenagers – Myths and Realities is useful as a resource for youth advocacy and for teaching as it makes a strong, comprehensive and empirical argument on behalf of youth as a maligned and neglected population. Although the book argues on behalf of youth, potential readers should note that it is, in the end, rather conservative with regards to intersecting sites of inequality.