Society helps little as children endure life passages, study says Violence, alcohol, drugs, sex pose challenges to U.S. youngsters 10-14

October 12, 1995|By KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWS SERVICE

They suffer more assaults than any other age group.

Two-thirds of them have tried alcohol. A third have tried illicit drugs. A third have thought about suicide.

They are smoking more (cigarettes and marijuana), having sex more (protected and unprotected), and being murdered more (their homicide rate doubled between 1985 and 1992).

They are not 18-year-olds, not 16, not even 15.

They are children 10 to 14, going through one of the most troubled passages of life -- and, according to a report to be released today, society is less likely than ever to help them through it.

The report, by the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development, charges that the United States is neglecting its 19 million children in that age group.

It predicts that millions of them could become lifelong casualties -- of AIDS, suicide, violence, poverty and poor education -- if the country does not act soon.

Although adolescence has traditionally been a time when youngsters begin pushing social limits, today's children -- spending less time with their parents, and more in front of the television than in front of their teachers, the report says -- are taking greater chances at earlier ages.

"All of those risky behaviors have been surging in this age group," said David A. Hamburg, president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York. "We used to see the surge at 21, 18, 16; now we're seeing it at 10, 11, 12."

Titled "Great Transitions: Preparing Adolescents for a New Century," the report is based on a 10-year study by a panel of 27 national leaders, including Philadelphia schools Superintendent David W. Hornbeck and former New Jersey Gov. Thomas H. Kean, now president of Drew University in Madison, N.J.

The report concludes that young teens are not getting the adult support and guidance they need, primarily because of social and economic changes the country has undergone.

"They are an amazingly neglected group and have been for a long time," Mr. Hamburg said in a telephone interview yesterday.

"Parents and a lot of professionals until recently believed these children were just moving toward independence -- 'they're hard to talk to, they're hard to teach' -- so the tendency was to just leave them alone."

Adolescents' problems, he said, are compounded today by increasing violence, deepening poverty and changing family structure.

"As a result, it's hard for them to imagine what their future is going to be like, and it's hard for their parents to tell them," Mr. Hamburg said.

Among the findings cited in the report:

* One in five adolescents is growing up in poverty.

* One of two will live with only one parent at some point in their lives.

* Parental involvement in education declines by the time students reach middle and high school.

* Twenty-seven percent of eighth-graders spend two or more hours at home alone after school, increasing their chances of being involved in drugs, crime or sexual activity.

* The birth rate among adolescent girls is growing fastest in the under-15 group.

* By mid-adolescence, young people have watched about 15,000 hours of television -- more time than they have spent in class.

* Adolescents face increasing risks to their health, but are among the least likely to have health insurance and access to adequate services.

* In the past two years, academic achievement levels of eighth-graders have been virtually stagnant; as adults, many will not be able to keep pace with a technology-based global economy.

Despite some bleak statistics, the Carnegie Council offered hope, and solutions.

Before the age of 14, the report said, damaging behavior patterns have yet to be established, and -- with parents, schools, business, government, community organizations and the media working together -- progress could be made toward ensuring the healthy development of adolescents.

Families need to become more supportive, more involved in their adolescents' education and more constructive in handling conflict, the council said.

Schools, employers and community organizations can help "re-engage" families by becoming more "family friendly," according to the report -- by offering flexible hours, after-school programs, parent-support groups and parent-school alliances.

The report said middle schools, largely ignored in the education reforms of the 1980s, should be smaller. School systems should reorganize into more intimate school-within-a-school settings, better prepare students for the workplace, train teachers and principals to deal with adolescents, and develop a strong link between education and health.

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