The Culture War Against Kids

In 1988, R.J. Reynolds introduced its Joe Camel cartoon icon designed to market Camel cigarettes. Everyone from Ralph Nader and anti-tobacco groups to the Centers for Disease Control to conservative tobacco-state lawmakers insisted cigarette ads, especially Joe Camel, lure teens to smoke. Yet, none mentioned the startling fact that in the four years after Joe's advent, every survey showed teenage smoking declined -- down 19 percent among high schoolers from 1988 to 1992, twice as fast as the drop among adults.

Further, the biggest decline came among the youngest group (12-13). It wasn't until 1993, when cigarette ad spending fell and market analysts agreed Joe Camel was old hat, that teenage smoking went up.

Surprisingly, over the last 25 years, teen smoking and smoking initiation rates are negatively associated with cigarette advertising and promotion spending -- that is, the more companies spend, the less teens smoke, and vice-versa. That fact doesn't fit the needs of the "culture war." Researchers and officials expend strenuous effort (including one dubious study that branded nearly all teens as smokers and denied family and peers have any influence) but have never produced evidence that ads make kids smoke.

Or take the Center for Science in the Public Interests' claim that the marketing of sweet-alcohol beverages, like Budweiser's famous bullfrogs, stimulate teenage drinking. So what? Since these alcohol promos appeared in the early 1990s, high schoolers' drunken driving crashes, binge drinking, and alcohol overdoses plummeted. Under today's simplistic "correlation equals causation" assumption (that is, cultural expression A must be the cause of proximate behavior B), Joe Camel and alcohol ads should be praised for reducing teen smoking and drinking.

"In rising panic, culture warriors left to right indict explicit video games, television, gangsta rap music, R-rated movies, Internet images, and 'toxic culture' for causing teenage violent crime, drug abuse, sex, and unhealthy behavior."

But reality doesn't matter to America's raging "culture war," where wild exaggeration and just making things up overwhelm sound social-problem analysis. Leftist warriors sound like their rightist counterparts.

"Teenage women today are engaging in far riskier health behavior than any prior generation," teenage binge drinking "is at record levels" and smoking is "soaring," as ads foment a rebellious "national peer pressure" to defy parents' values, declares progressive media critic Jean Kilbourne (just like right-wing virtuist William Bennett).

"The profound transformation over the last thirty years in the way children look and act ... seem connected to some of our most troubling and prominent social problems," echoed the conservative Manhattan Institutes Kay Hymowitz, blaming "anticultural forces."

Suburban chronicler Patricia Hersch brands the entire younger generation "an insidious...tribe apart." The media's newest youth-violence expert, psychologist James Garbarino, warns the "epidemic ... of lethal youth violence ... has spread throughout American society ... We have twice as many kids who are seriously troubled as we did 25, 30 years ago and those kids have access to a wide range of dark images, on the Internet, through the videos, video games." Clinicians William Pollack and Mary Bray Pipher label today's youth "lonely, troubled, depressed, confused."

What's the evidence for these frightening claims? Little more than anecdote and assertion. In rising panic, culture warriors left to right indict explicit video games, television, gangsta rap music, R-rated movies, Internet images, and "toxic culture" for causing teenage violent crime, drug abuse, sex, and unhealthy behavior. From 1990 to 2000, rap sales soared 70 percent, four million teen and pre-teen boys took up violent video games (as 1992's Nintendo Mortal Kombat evolved to 1994's bloody Sega version and sequels), and youth patronage of movie videos and Net sites exploded.

As "toxic culture" dysfluences spread, did Lord of the Flies ensue? To the contrary. Perhaps no period in history has witnessed such rapid improvements in adolescent conduct. From 1990 through 1999, teenage violence and other malaise plunged: homicide rates (down 62 percent), rape (down 27 percent), violent crime (down 22 percent), school violence (down 20 percent), property offenses (down 33 percent), births (down 17 percent), abortions (down 15 percent), sexually transmitted diseases (down 50 percent), violent deaths (down 20 percent), suicide (down 16 percent), and drunken driving fatalities (down 35 percent).

Unhealthy youth indexes have fallen to three-decade lows while good ones -- school graduation, college enrollment, community volunteerism -- are up. Pointedly, the only teenage misbehaviors to increase since 1992, smoking (monthly rates up 13 percent) and drug abuse (overdose deaths up 11 percent, but still low), are the two most subjected to the "culture war's" zero-tolerance interventions. Overall, 80 percent to 90 percent of today's supposedly "depressed, lonely, alienated, confused" younger generation consistently tell surveyors they're happy, self-confident, and like their parents.

These aren't just recent trends; teens as a generation have been improving for several decades. Teenage girls, far from being messed up as Kilbourne and Pipher insist, are far safer today from most major risks (violent death, sexually transmitted disease, pregnancy, homicide arrest, suicide-related deaths, traffic deaths, fatal accidents, drug abuse, heavy drinking, smoking, school dropout, etc.) than girls of 20-30 years ago. Teenage binge drinking has dropped 25 percent since the 1970s, smoking declined 20 percent to 50 percent depending on the measure, and drunken driving deaths are down 40 percent -- especially among girls. California, which keeps more precise statistics by race and type of death than other states, records phenomenal declines in teenage suicide, drug abuse, felony crime, and other serious problems over the last 25 years.

The few bad youth trends were related to socioeconomic disadvantage, not culture. The temporary increase in homicide and other violent crime in the late 1980s was not a general youth trend; it was confined to the poorest young men involved in gang conflicts. In 2000, the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention found that law enforcement "policy changes" rather than a real violent crime increase might have sparked more arrests. Contrary to Garbarino and others, murder and other violence by youth is not spreading but becoming more concentrated. Today, America's poorest youths are 40 times more likely to die by homicide and gunfire than the wealthiest, and five-sixths of California's teenage gun deaths occur in just one-tenth of its populated zipcodes. While the mega-threats clarioned by the culture war should have killed every American teenager five times over by now, teens today actually display the lowest violent death rate in 50 years!

NONE of culture warriors' dire claims of epidemics of depressed, alienated, self-destructive, murderous youth are even remotely verifiable -- and younger, pre-teen kids are safer still. No matter. Culture critics aren't concerned with reality, but with sin: blood-spewing video games, bikini-team beer ads, and other repulsive cultural manifestations must be causing damage. Culture warriors' phoniness is revealed by their indifference when real-life killers cite unexpected media triggers: the stalker who shotgunned actress Rebecca Schaeffer worshipped the anthemic Irish band U2, Oklahoma's 15 year-old school shooter idolized the PG movie "Patton," and numerous mass-killers quote the Bible.

The culture war is not just phony, but reactionary. It commodifies powerless groups to project a fearsome image of constantly escalating menace, suppresses discussion of real social inequalities, and promotes repressive government solutions. Youth are the most convenient population upon which to project damage, keeping the debate safely away from questioning adult values and pleasures that form the real influences on youths. In short, the culture war is not about changing genuine American social ills such as high rates of child poverty, domestic violence, and family disarray, but fomenting an endless series of moral panics that obstruct social change.

Political movements to strip youth rights and institutional youth-fixers have proliferated to profit from fear, generating more scary "studies" proclaiming ever "new," "alarming," and "rising" youth crises that are then recycled by culture warriors as if special-interest self-promotion equaled science. The Carnegie Corporation recasts the healthiest, safest generation of young teens age 10-14 ever as a mass of "grim statistics" and "tragic consequences." (In truth, violent fatality rates among today's younger teens are an astounding 48 percent lower than in the supposedly pastoral 1950s Carnegie extolled). Carnegie deplored the "freedom, autonomy and choice" among teens for unprecedented "threats to their well-being."

Healthier Western nations recognize it's normal for an adolescent to experience depression, anger, lust, body image confusion, anxiety, sexy music, cathartic games, evil media messages, corporate pitches, dangerous temptations, free time with peers, consumer interests, all those untoward growing-up influences about which Americas kiddie-savers spread apocalyptic terror. Even if some kids get into trouble, modern remedies like curfews, Prozac, zero-tolerance, and mass lockup only make things worse.

American youth do suffer real threats (as opposed to fictional booze marketing and R-rated movies). Fourteen million kids grow up in abject poverty, 2,000 die and half a million are treated in hospital emergency rooms from domestic violence every year, and 15 million have addicted parents. Americans' preference for indulging self-righteous moral crusades to avoid tough decision-making is a big reason the U.S. remains unable to confront vastly outsized levels of murder, violence, gunplay, unplanned pregnancy, addiction, drunkenness, preventable disease, and other social ills that other industrial nations better control.

Odious cultural influences can't be shown to warp kids, but the culture war itself clearly corrupts grownups to dodge and deny fundamental responsibility.

Mike Males, senior researcher for the Justice Policy Institute and sociology instructor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, authored Kids & Guns: How Politicians, Experts and the Press Fabricate Fear of Youth (

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