The Secret Life of Teens: A Special Report

They eat. They sleep. They study. They Facebook. But what goes on when kids are out of sight? And, more importantly, what are they thinking? To find out, we asked.

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The parent-teen relationship is worth examining, too, so we also polled 250 parents and compared their answers with their kids’. The answers were in line when parents were asked whether they had had “the talk” about sex (51 percent of parents said their teen talks to them about sex, while 42 percent of teens said they felt comfortable doing so), but responses diverged widely when it came to topics such as monitoring Internet usage, dating and relationships, and drinking. For example, 20 percent of teens polled had had an episode of binge drinking—consumed three or more drinks in one sitting—but only 3 percent of parents believed their child had ever done that.

Some results really surprised us, particularly when it came to drugs and sex. Teens reported that the most common places they tried alcohol or drugs were at their own or their friends’ houses. The biggest reason for having sex was to satisfy curiosity (57 percent of teens who’d had sex said that this was the main reason)—beating out love (28 percent) or peer pressure (13 percent). Only two-thirds of the teens surveyed had used protection the first time they had sex.

But no finding perplexed us more than the percentage of teens who reported smoking marijuana (18 percent of high schoolers). The number is actually low compared with national studies: A 2007 Centers for Disease Control (CDC) study of ninth through twelfth graders found the rate to be more than twice as high. Similarly, a 2008 study conducted by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) found that 42.6 percent of high-school seniors said they had tried the drug, as had 14.6 percent of eighth graders. Although reflecting an overall decrease from the late 1990s, both NIH numbers showed slight upticks from the previous year.

There are some probable reasons why our poll seemed more conservative than current national findings. Our participant pool skewed young: A fourth of respondents were still in middle school, which is about the time kids start experimenting. That probably accounts for the fact that fewer teens in our survey said they’d had sex—just 16 percent versus 47.8 percent in the national CDC poll. It’s also possible that many in our group of teens, although assured anonymity, answered cautiously—our poll was conducted by a market research firm, which may have led them to worry about how their answers would be used. Further, the teens took the poll at home, monitored by parents; national polls are given at schools, which tend to be more neutral arenas. Whatever the reasons, the discrepancies demonstrate the problems in polling as a method of studying teens.

Of course, today’s teenagers are not a homogenous bunch. We knew that polling could never give us the complete picture, so we conducted 45 extensive interviews with teens from the city and the suburbs. We wanted to know what teens were thinking, how they chose their friends, what they did behind closed doors. We wanted to hear about their lives in their own words. “Growing up in Chicago, I feel like I’ve seen and done more stuff,” said one 17-year-old Urban Prep Charter School student we’ll call Jaylan (to protect their privacy, we have changed the names of the students quoted in this story). “I feel like I’ve done what a senior in college would.”

Although we spoke to plenty of teens who had never tried marijuana or whose cheeks grew red at the very mention of sex, we found that the responses gathered in these less-formal exchanges support some of the more troubling national findings, particularly when it comes to the prevalence of drug use. One question that elicited a robust response was whether life is harder or easier for today’s teens than it was for their parents. Most teens insisted it was harder, and when we asked why, one word inevitably surfaced: pressure.

There’s pressure to have the right clothes—Uggs and designer jeans and $200 sneakers. There’s pressure to drink and smoke and fit in with the crowd. Teens also reported pressure to meet or exceed their parents’ lifestyle. “One of our teachers asked why we try hard in school,” said a New Trier Township High School student, 18. “I raised my hand and said it was because my parents would kill me [if I didn’t]. One girl said it was for maintaining the lifestyle we live right now. A lot of the kids I know are worried about not living up to their parents’ expectations.” She went on to describe how that translated into additional Advanced Placement (AP) courses, extracurriculars, volunteer hours, and, for her, even a part-time job. “There’s a lot of pressure to succeed, so when [kids] have free time, they go crazy.”

Then there’s pressure to do drugs and to have sex or oral sex. These topics—and the related problem of teen pregnancy—were the ones that our teens rated highest among issues facing their generation. Here are those issues in their own words.

 

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