Poll shows separate lives for teens

July 10, 1994|By New York Times News Service

A nationwide poll of teen-agers suggests that many lead lives shadowed by adult concerns such as violence, drinking and getting a good job, but these are worries that many say they cannot share with adults.

Many appear to live in virtually separate worlds from adults. Four in 10 say their parents sometimes or often do not make time to help them, and many say the people they both trust and fear the most are other teen-agers.

Forty percent of teen-agers surveyed said they knew someone who had been shot in the last five years, and most of those said that both the attacker and the victim were other teen-agers.

Thirteen percent said that at least half the students in their schools carried weapons such as knives and guns, and an additional 16 percent said some students were armed. A third said at least some classmates had cheated on the last test they took, and most confessed to cheating at some time.

Amid these very grown-up troubles, many teen-agers still cling to some remnants of their early childhoods. Many say their most cherished possessions are stuffed animals or baseball card collections.

And while many sounded blase about drinking or cheating, they often made harsh moral judgments about themselves, wishing they could control their tempers or be nicer to others.

The survey, conducted May 26 to June 1 by the New York Times and CBS News, was a telephone poll of 1,055 teen-agers 13 to 17 years old. It has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points. This was the first poll of teen-agers these organizations have conducted, so this poll cannot be used to deduce changes in attitudes and behavior over time.

Like teen-agers from time immemorial, many of today's adolescents feel estranged from their parents. Four in 10 said their parents were sometimes or often unavailable to them, a result that did not appear to depend on whether their mothers worked outside the home.

In follow-up interviews, many said their parents were not spending much time with them or communicating well with them.

While many teen-agers said they would not want their parents riding herd on them anyway, hints of longing crept through the bravado. "Even when my parents are here, it's like they're not because they don't have any time," said Aaron M., a 16-year-old who lives near Olympia, Wash., and who did not want his last name used. "We never do anything. We never go out to dinner. We used to do it all the time when we were younger."

Like most of the teen-agers polled, Aaron usually eats dinner with his family -- although half of those who do said the television was on at the same time -- but the family dinner, it seems, does not necessarily spell togetherness.

"We never talk about anything," he said. "Maybe school. A lot of timesthey're paranoid about my friends. They always get on my case when I come home."

Aaron did not hold out much hope that he and his parents could draw any closer together.

For other teen-agers, though, parental relationships were less bleak.

"Sometimes I feel like my mom is unavailable to me because her job sometimes sends her away for a week at a time," said Cristina Smith, 16, from Chicago. "But if there was anything I needed, I could just ask her for it. I feel close to my parents. That's why I feel I can talk to them about anything. I get a lot of attention."

Many teen-agers described life across a divide from their parents. While 30 percent said they most enjoyed being with their friends, just 3 percent preferred the company of their families. These lives apart are shaped partly by a natural pull toward their friends and partly by a fear of telling their parents what they really do and think.

"It's just that some things are problems I just can't tell them about," said Jennifer Hester, a 16-year-old from a Mississippi town that she preferred not to identify.

"They wouldn't understand or they'd get really upset. Like OK, say I'm at a party and I know there's going to be some things that I shouldn't be around. And I go and my parents ask me all about it. I can't tell them that."

Many teen-agers said that they worried about violence and that some students in their schools carried guns.

For most students, that fear overshadowed reality: while 4 in 10 said they worried a lot or some of the time about being threatened by violence, 82 percent said neither they nor members of their immediate families had been victims of a crime in the past two years.

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