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Inadequate Interest and Resources for Youth’s Socialization

by Sharon L. Nichols & Thomas L. Good - June 28, 2004

The title of the widely cited 1983 report, A Nation at Risk, has proven to be accurate although not in the way the report specified. Our nation is not at risk because of students’ alleged poor academic performance. Our nation is at risk because it is inadequately socializing the most overstressed and undervalued members of society—American teenagers.

The title of the widely cited 1983 report, A Nation at Risk, has proven to be accurate although not in the way the report specified. Our nation is not at risk because of students’ alleged poor academic performance. Our nation is at risk because it is inadequately socializing the most overstressed and undervalued members of society—American teenagers.  Too many youth exist in inadequate, even appalling circumstances above which they are expected to rise and be successful. Given the extent of absent parents, poverty, and dangerous environments in which many youth live, these expectations seem unattainable for many. Other youth are expected to meet many and often conflicting demands and expectations without proper guidance or adult socialization (Schneider and Stevenson, 1999).


Recent federal (No Child Left Behind) and emerging state legislation that demands higher achievement from our children is a good example of the types of pressures youth of all ages and backgrounds face. For example, many states now demand that students pass a test, (and in some states, initial failure rates have been as high as 90%) to be promoted to the next grade or to receive a high school diploma. This type of blanket policy explicitly ignores the deplorable circumstances in which many of our children learn.          


Youth are poorly understood. Media accounts and citizens’ beliefs about youth are much more negative than youth’s actual beliefs and actions (e.g., Males, 2000).  Polls conducted by Public Agenda (Farkas and Johnson, 1997) reveal that most adults believe that most teenagers are wild, irresponsible, rude, and amoral. This generalized perception contrasts starkly with many positive aspects of youth including: growing numbers of students taking and doing well on SAT and AP tests[1], more students working and going to school than in any other country (Bracey, 1998), and the steady decline of youth drinking, smoking, and drug use (Johnston, O’Malley, and Bachman, 2003).  Distressingly, these unfavorable views of youth are becoming sharper over time and are being applied to younger and younger youth. If this trend is not reversed we are indeed a nation at risk.


Adults often fail to provide adequate guidance and socialization.  According to a report released by Georgetown University’s Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth, television advertising of alcohol to youth grew significantly from 2001 to 2002. More specifically, youth aged 12 – 20 were more likely than adults to see the 66,218 alcohol ads in 2002—an increase of 30% over 2001. Data suggest that a majority of youth watch TV alone (Roberts, Foehr, Rideout, and Brodie, 1999). Without adult mediation of this media-driven “push” for alcohol consumption (e.g., through television ads), we are irresponsibly leaving youth alone to figure it out for themselves.  Is it reasonable to expect most youth to “not drink” when they are submerged in messages that strive to make it acceptable? Importantly, data show that despite an adult climate that condones, if not promotes, youth alcohol use, data suggest that adolescent drinking is steadily declining (Johnston, O’Malley, and Bachman, 2003).


Youth also receive inadequate guidance and socialization around sex. Even though there is strong evidence that abstinence-based education is ineffective (e.g., US Department of Health and Human Services, 2001), the Bush administration continues to fund abstinence-based approaches to sex education. This position is in direct conflict with what parents and youth want which is more, not less, information on sex.  A 2003 survey found that when asked what are the biggest concerns facing 15-17 year olds today, an overwhelming majority of both parents and teens reported that sexual health issues (such as STD, HIV and pregnancy) were the biggest problems, above sexual violence or other physical violence; using drugs; discrimination because of race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation; drinking too much; smoking cigarettes; or depression or other mental illness (Hoff and Green, 2000).


Youth violence is another area where adults fail to protect and guide youth.  Since the 1980s, and in anticipation that society should prepare for the onslaught of the teenage “superpredator” who in growing numbers would commit serious violent crimes (e.g., assault, rape, and murder) without remorse, policymakers instituted especially harsh and punitive sentences for youth who committed antisocial acts (Snyder and Sickmund, 1999).  This knee jerk reaction to the perception that we would encounter large numbers of violent youth led to the allocation of monies for more security guards, more juvenile beds, and more youth sent to adult prisons. Similarly, in the aftermath of Columbine, and despite one in one million odds that a student could be shot in school, many schools across the country spent valuable time and resources bringing in metal detectors, hiring extra school guards, reducing student privacy rights (e.g., locker searches), and engaging in “school shooting drills.”   Youth’s capacity and inevitability for committing violence is incredibly overblown and has caused adults to focus more on how to react to youth rather than how to help them before they engage in violence. Further, this focus exaggerates youth violence and minimizes issues of youth suicide and adult violence toward youth—both of which are more prevalent than youth violence to others.


Data on various after school programs and life skills development programs indicate that such approaches hold incredible promise for not only thwarting youth’s bad decisions, but for helping them to maximize positive life experiences. For example, the Life Skills Training (LST)[2] program targets students in middle or junior high school and includes three main curriculum components of self-management skills, social skills, and information and skills related specifically to drug use. Research has found that when they participate in this program, youth are less likely to use drugs.   The Seattle Social Development Project (SSD), targets children in the early elementary school grades (when generally students’ self-concepts are high) and focuses on goals that establish better connections among children, their families, and schools. Importantly, this program found empirical support across the widest range of independent researchers, in comparison to other programs (See Hawkins, Catalano, Morrison, O’Donnell, Abbott, and Day, 1992; Mendel, 2000). Project evaluations show that participating students displayed a reduction in aggression, and antisocial and self-destructive behavior. Follow-up evaluations show that at age 18, students who had participated in the program were likely to feel more connected to school than students who did not participate.


Youth deserve to be viewed as an investment. The first step in providing better socialization opportunities for all youth is recognizing that youth are much better than they are commonly depicted, and that they rise to multiple pressures in a complex modern world and succeed in many, unrecognized ways. Let’s celebrate and help youth—not minimize and ignore them. Second, it is important for educators to insist that the media be more accurate in their depiction of youth and to stop using monolithic descriptions of them such as irresponsible, lazy, and dangerous. Youth need to be known by their actions not mythical accounting. Of course, if social scientists are to play this role, they too need to know the facts about youth.


Society and its leaders must take a more aggressive stance to protect and guide youth as opposed to minimizing and devaluing them. Our analysis of a wide range of issues, including youth violence, sexuality, drug, tobacco, and alcohol use, employment, health and education leads us to the firm conclusion that the basic problem  is not defective kids, but a broader society that is careless in its guidance and support of youth.  We have outlined a series of ways to enhance the lives of youth (Nichols and Good, 2004). The purpose of our analysis and recommendations is to start a dialogue about the ways that educational and social science researchers can take action (including research) to help the broader society to understand youth and to see them more as an investment than a burden. We invite you to participate in this dialogue.




[1] College Entrance Examination Board (2001). 2001 College Bound Seniors: A profile of SAT program test takers. Available online, retrieved July  9, 2002, http://www.collegeboard.com/sat/cbsenior/yr2001/pdf/NATL.pdf

Taken from College Board, AP website.See http://apcentral.collegeboard.com/article/0,1281,150-156-0-2059,00.htmlfor a breakdown of state-by-state information, and for a national overview of public versus private school test-taking rates, see the summary tables provided on, http://apcentral.collegeboard.com/repository/01_national_8128.pdf


[2] This program has less empirical support than others; however, based on the Surgeon General’s review of the literature, it has still yielded some empirical support.  Importantly, more research is necessary to fully understand the potential impact of the program.  For more information, see Botvin, G. J., Mihalic, S. F. and Grotpeter, J. K (1998). Life skills training. In D. S. Elliot (Series Ed.), Blueprints for Violence Prevention. Boulder, CO: Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence, Institute of Behavioral Science, University of Colorado at Boulder.




Bracey, G. (1998, September). Tinkering with TIMSS. Phi Delta Kappan, 80, 32-38.


Farkas, S., and Johnson, J. (with Duffett, A., and Bers, A.) (1997). Kids these days: What Americans really think about the next generation.  New York: Public Agenda.


Hawkins, J. D., Catalano, R. F., Morrison, D., O’Donnell, J., Abbott, R., and Day, L. E. (1992). The Seattle Social Development Project: Effects of the first four years on protective factors and problem behaviors. In J. McCord & R. E. Tremblay (Eds.), Preventing antisocial behavior: Interventions from birth through adolescence. New York: The Guilford Press.


Hoff, T. and Greene, L.  (2000, September). Sex education in America: A view from inside the nation’s classrooms.  Menlo Park, CA: The Henry Kaiser Family Foundation [online]. Available at: http://www.kff.org/.


Johnston, L. D., O’Malley, P. M., and Bachman, J. G. (2003).  Monitoring the Future national survey results on drug use, 1975-2002. Volume I: Secondary school students  Lansing, MI: University of Michigan (NID Publication NO. 03-5375). Bethesda, MD: National Institute on Drug Abuse.


Males, M. A. (2000).  Kids and guns: How politicians, experts, and the press fabricate fear of youth.  Philadelphia, PA: Common Courage Press.


Mendel, R. A. (2000). Less hype, more help: Reducing juvenile crime, what works—and what doesn’t. Washington, DC: American Youth Policy Forum.


Nichols, S., and Good, T. (2004).  America’s teenagers—Myths and realities: Media images, schooling, and the social costs of careless indifference.  Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum. 


Roberts, D., Foehr, U. G., Rideout, V. J., and Brodie, M. (1999, November).  Kids and media @ the new millennium: A comprehensive analysis of children’s media use.  The Kaiser Family Foundation.


Schneider, B. and Stevenson, D. (1999). The ambitious generation: America’s teenagers motivated but directionless.  New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.


Snyder, H. N., and Sickmund, M. (1999).  Juvenile offenders and victims: 1999 national report.  Washington, DC: Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. 


US Department of Human Health and Human Services. (2001).  TheSurgeon General’s call to action to promote sexual health and responsible behavior. (2001, July).  Washington, DC: US Department of Human Health and Human Services. Retrieved January 16, 2002 from http://www.surgeongeneral.gov/library/sexualhealth/









Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: June 28, 2004
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11340, Date Accessed: 1/22/2022 3:11:17 AM

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About the Author
  • Sharon Nichols
    Arizona State University
    E-mail Author
    Sharon Nichols will finish her Postdoctoral Research Fellowship at the Educational Policy Study Laboratory at Arizona State University during the summer of 2004 at which time she will assume her new role as Assistant Professor at the University of Texas, San Antonio. Her research interests include adolescent development and motivation, educational policy, and classroom processes. She is co-author of the recently released book (2004), America’s Teenagers—Myths and Realities: Media Images, Schooling, and the Social Costs of Careless Indifference published by Erlbaum.
  • Thomas Good
    Arizona State University
    Tom Good is a Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Arizona. His research interests in the policy area include youth socialization and youth’s educational progress, especially in schools that serve high numbers of youth from low income families. He is the editor of the Elementary School Journal, and is the co-author of the recently released book (2004), America’s Teenagers—Myths and Realities: Media Images, Schooling, and the Social Costs of Careless Indifference published by Erlbaum.
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