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6.3: Challenges of Adolescence

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    • Identify and explain some of the social problems facing contemporary teenagers.
    • Analyze the factors that contribute to social problems of teenagers.
    • Explain the consequences social problems cause adolescence.

    Universal Generalizations

    • Adolescence can be confusing and challenging time of life.
    • The norms dealing with sexual behavior vary greatly from society to society.
    • Early sexual activity can have negative health effects.
    • Adolescents are faced for the first time with important decisions which can have serious consequences on their lives

    Guiding Questions

    • Is it more difficult to be a teenager today than 20 years ago? 40 years ago?
    • What type of social issues do teenagers face today?
    • What are the causes and consequences of these problems?
    • What causes and what are the consequences of suicide?

    Challenges of Adolescence

    The teen years are a time when adolescents begin developing a separate identity from their parents. It can be an exciting and confusing time for teens as they gain independence and begin preparing for adulthood. Teens in Americans face several common problems that can affect their emotional, social and physical development. America's teens face new problems when it comes to bullying. While past generations might have worried about getting into a fistfight with a bully, many of today's teens face possible violence with weapons. Cyberbullying also is a new problem, and it can lead to rumors and insults being spread in an instant. According to, bullying places teens at risk for many other problems, including low self-esteem, social withdrawal and social anxiety. Truancy and academic problems can also stem from bullying.

    While bullying has been around for ages, the Internet has made bullying easier and more widespread than ever, making it one of the major issues teens face today. It gives people who are normally afraid of confrontation the ability to bully others anonymously and those who would bully anyway a wider selection of “weapons” with which to attack. Facebook, Twitter and other social media networks give bullies the ability to enlist the help of others in their bullying schemes and publicize whatever they want to about their victim. A lot of teens are left stressed out, wondering if something they said or something they did will wind up posted on Facebook for all to see.


    Another issue concerning teens is depression. According to the American Academy of Adolescent and Child Psychiatry, "About 5 percent of children and adolescents in the general population suffer from depression at any given point in time." While adults with depression often appear sad, teens with depression usually report physical health problems, appear irritable and exhibit behavioral problems. Depression can cause teens to isolate themselves and withdraw from activities. Academic problems often arise as depression can lead to increased absences from school, difficulty concentrating and decreased motivation.


    Obesity is an issue affecting many American teens. According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, "Between 16 and 33 percent of children and adolescents are obese," which means they are more than 10 percent exceed the recommended weight for their height. Obesity can place teenagers at risk of many medical problems such as diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and breathing problems. It can also cause social problems for teenagers because they are more likely to suffer from low self-esteem and be less popular with their peers.

    Teen Challenges
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): For many people, adolescence is a time of uncertainty, growth and opportunities. (

    Substance Abuse

    A major concern for many adolescence in the United States is substance abuse. According to the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, adolescent substance use is America's No. 1 public health problem. According to a recent study by the center, "46 percent of all high school students currently use addictive substances; 1 in 3 of them meets the medical criteria for addiction." The use of addictive substances before the age of 18 greatly increases the likelihood of developing an addiction. Many factors contribute to teen substance abuse problems, such as peer pressure and media messages. Alcohol is the substance abused most frequently by adolescents, followed by marijuana and tobacco. In the past month, 39 percent of high school seniors reported drinking some alcohol, almost 23 percent reported using marijuana, and 16 percent reported smoking cigarettes.

    More adolescents drink alcohol than smoke cigarettes or use marijuana. Within the past month, almost four out of 10 high school seniors report drinking some alcohol and more than one in five have engaged in “binge drinking” daily in the past two weeks. Drinking endangers adolescents in multiple ways including motor vehicle crashes, the leading cause of death for this age group. Nearly one in four adolescents has ridden in a car with a driver who had been drinking. Genetic factors and life stressors influence adolescents’ alcohol abuse, but parents and guardians can help by monitoring adolescents’ activities and keeping channels of communication open.

    Cigarette smoking among adolescents has declined dramatically in the last 15 years. Today, most adolescents do not smoke, but about one in ten has smoked within the past month and the use of smokeless tobacco increased between 2008 and 2010, but has remained fairly steady since 2010. Tobacco use harms nearly every organ in the body, and more than six million children born between 1983 and 2000 will die in adulthood of smoking-related illnesses. Multiple factors influence whether an adolescent becomes a regular smoker, including genetics and having parents or peers who smoke. Many adolescents start trying tobacco products at a young age, so prevention efforts in schools, in communities, and in homes, can help and should begin early.

    Illicit drug use—which includes the abuse of illegal drugs and/or the misuse of prescription medications or household substances—is something many adolescents engage in occasionally, and a few do regularly. By the twelfth grade, about half of adolescents have abused an illicit drug at least once. The most commonly used drug is marijuana but adolescents can find many abused substances, such as prescription medications, glues, and aerosols, in the home. Many factors and strategies can help adolescents stay drug free: Strong positive connections with parents, other family members, school, and religion; having parents present in the home at key times of the day; and reduced access in the home to illegal substances.

    Adolescence and Sexual Behavior

    Many young people engage in sexual risk behaviors that can result in unintended health outcomes. For example, among U.S. high school students surveyed in 2013

    • 47% had ever had sexual intercourse.
    • 34% had had sexual intercourse during the previous 3 months, and, of these
      • 41% did not use a condom the last time they had sex.
    • 15% had had sex with four or more people during their life.
    • Only 22% of sexually experienced students have ever been tested for HIV.

    Sexual risk behaviors place adolescents at risk for HIV infection, other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), and unintended pregnancy:

    • Nearly 10,000 young people (aged 13-24) were diagnosed with HIV infection in the United States in 2013.
    • Young gay and bisexual men (aged 13-24) accounted for an estimated 19% (8,800) of all new HIV infections in the United States, and 72% of new HIV infections among youth in 2010.
    • Nearly half of the 20 million new STDs each year were among young people, between the ages of 15 to 24.
    • Approximately 273,000 babies were born to teen girls aged 15–19 years in 2013.

    Among American teenagers, the birthrate is substancially higher than other industrialized countries. The CDC has established national health objectives to address the issue of sexual behavior. One of its major objectives the CDC encouraged abstinence- not engaging in any type of sexual behavior. Surveys have indicated the CDC programs have had some success. Sexual activity among teens has declined and the use of birth control has increased.

    To reduce sexual risk behaviors and related health problems among youth, schools and other youth-serving organizations can help young people adopt lifelong attitudes and behaviors that support their health and well-being- including behaviors that reduce their risk for HIV, other STDs and unintended pregnancy.

    Influences on Early Sexual Activity

    Social scientists have theorized a series of explanations for why teens partake in sexual behavior. Many scientists believe social and economic factors contribute to early sexual activity. Some of these factors are family income level, marital status of parents, and religious participation. Typically teens from higher income two parent families have lower rates of sexual activity than those teens who come from a lower social income and one parent families. Sexual activity is also influenced by the norms concerning sexual behavior among teens. Those teens whose friends engage in sexual behavior are more likely to engage in sexual behavior than those whose friends do not engage in sex.

    Teen Sexual Activity and Outcomes

    Early sexual activity is associated with a host of negative outcomes that can have lasting physical, emotional, social, and economic impacts on the lives of young people, particularly teenage girls and young women.

    Sexually Transmitted Diseases

    The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one in four teenage girls has at least one sexually transmitted infection (STI). Teenage girls, especially, are physiologically vulnerable to these infections, and early sexual activity increases the risk of infection. One study found that those who begin sexual activity at age 13 are twice as likely to become infected as peers who remain sexually abstinent throughout their teen years.

    Teen Pregnancy and Unwed Childbearing

    The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy estimates that about one in two Hispanic and black teenage girls and one in five Caucasian teenage girls will become pregnant at least once before turning 20. Overall, nearly one in five adolescent girls will give birth in her teens.

    Engaging in early sexual activity elevates the risk of teenage girls becoming pregnant and single mothers. Girls who become sexually active during early adolescence are three times as likely to become single mothers as those who remain abstinent throughout their teenage years. Nearly 40 percent of girls who begin sexual activity at ages 13 or 14 will give birth outside marriage, compared to 9 percent of those who remain abstinent until their early twenties.

    Marital Stability and Maternal Poverty

    Sexual activity at an early age may also affect marital and economic stability later in life. Among women in their thirties, those who were sexually active during early adolescence are half as likely to be in stable marriages as those who waited until their early twenties to have sex. Early sexual activity is also linked to maternal poverty. At the time of a large national survey in 1995, nearly 30 percent of mothers who began sexual activity at ages 13 or 14 lived in poverty compared to 12 percent of those who waited until their early twenties.

    Parental Influence and Teen Sex

    Many policymakers, health professionals, and "safe sex" advocates respond to these troubling statistics by demanding more comprehensive sex education and broader access to contraceptives for minors. They assume that teens are unable to delay their sexual behavior and that a combination of information about and access to contraceptives will effectively lead to protected sex, preventing any form of harm to youngsters. Not only are these assumptions faulty, they tend to disregard important factors that have been linked to reduced teen sexual activity. A particularly noticeable omission is parental influence.

    Parents, as teens themselves reveal, are the ones who have the most influence on their children's decisions about sex. Indeed, two-thirds of all teens share their parents' values on this topic.

    When it comes to talking about teen sex, both teens and parents report high levels of communication. Parents, however, tend to perceive a greater level of communication than do teens. Nearly all parents (90 percent) report having had a helpful conversation about delaying sex and avoiding pregnancy with their teenage children, compared to 71 percent of teens who report having had such a conversation with their parents. Many parents are also unaware of their teens' actual behavior. In a study of 700 teens in Philadelphia, 58 percent of the teens reported being sexually active, while only one-third of their mothers believed they were.

    The empirical evidence on the association between parental influences and adolescents' sexual behavior is strong. Parental factors that appear to offer strong protection against the onset of early sexual activity include an intact family structure; parents' disapproval of adolescent sex; teens' sense of belonging to and satisfaction with their families; parental monitoring; and, to a lesser extent, parent-child communication about teen sex and its consequences.

    That parents play a role in teen sex points to at least two significant policy implications. First, programs and policies that seek to delay sexual activity or to prevent teen pregnancy or STDs should encourage and strengthen family structure and parental involvement. Doing so may increase these efforts' overall effectiveness. Conversely, programs and policies that implicitly or explicitly discourage parental involvement, such as dispensing contraceptives to adolescents without parental consent or notice, contradict the weight of social science evidence and may prove to be counterproductive and potentially harmful to teens.

    Youth Suicide

    Suicide (i.e., taking one's own life) is a serious public health problem that affects even young people. For youth between the ages of 10 and 24, suicide is the third leading cause of death. It results in approximately 4600 lives lost each year. The top three methods used in suicides of young people include firearm (45%), suffocation (40%), and poisoning (8%).

    Deaths from youth suicide are only part of the problem. More young people survive suicide attempts than actually die. A nationwide survey of youth in grades 9–12 in public and private schools in the United States (U.S.) found that 16% of students reported seriously considering suicide, 13% reported creating a plan, and 8% reporting trying to take their own life in the 12 months preceding the survey. Each year, approximately 157,000 youth between the ages of 10 and 24 receive medical care for self-inflicted injuries at Emergency Departments across the U.S.

    Suicide affects all youth, but some groups are at higher risk than others. Boys are more likely than girls to die from suicide. Of the reported suicides in the 10 to 24 age group, 81% of the deaths were males and 19% were females. Girls, however, are more likely to report attempting suicide than boys. Cultural variations in suicide rates also exist, with Native American/Alaskan Native youth having the highest rates of suicide-related fatalities. A nationwide survey of youth in grades 9–12 in public and private schools in the U.S. found Hispanic youth were more likely to report attempting suicide than their black and white, non-Hispanic peers.

    Several factors can put a young person at risk for suicide. However, having these risk factors does not always mean that suicide will occur.

    Sidebar Notes:

    If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255), or visit the Web.

    Suicide has many warning signs. For more information, visit the American Association of Suicidology's Web site.

    Risk factors

    • History of previous suicide attempts
    • Family history of suicide
    • History of depression or other mental illness
    • Alcohol or drug abuse
    • Stressful life event or loss
    • Easy access to lethal methods
    • Exposure to the suicidal behavior of others
    • Incarceration

    Most people are uncomfortable with the topic of suicide. Too often, victims are blamed, and their families and friends are left stigmatized. As a result, people do not communicate openly about suicide. Thus an important public health problem is left shrouded in secrecy, which limits the amount of information available to those working to prevent suicide.

    The good news is that research over the last several decades has uncovered a wealth of information on the causes of suicide and on prevention strategies. Additionally, CDC is working to monitor the problem and develop programs to prevent youth suicide.

    The Sociological View of Suicide

    Suicide is a major challenge facing American adolescence. Suicide among teens now exceeds the suicide rates of the general population. In order to gain a better understanding of suicide, a sociological view must be taken into account. Social Integration is the degree to which people are connected to their social groups. Let's check your own personal degree of social integration. On a piece of paper right down how many close family members you have. Then add in how many close friends and coworkers you have. Finally add in all others whose name you know and they know yours. This number is one measure of your social integration. But, to really get an idea you might evaluate these relationships. In other words list your top 6 closest relationships in order. Make a short list of the 6 closest relationships you have. Now, rank 1 for the closest, 2 for next closest and so on up to 6th. Durkheim realized from his suicide studies that the closer we are to others, the more socially integrated we are and the less likely we are to commit suicide. The second concept to understand is called anomie.

    As a larger social fact, anomie is a byproduct of large complex societies, especially around large cities. It's easier to get lost in the crowd, not be noticed, and to rarely receive praise or criticism for personal actions. Durkheim and others were aware that society impacted the life of the individual even if the individual had very little impact on society. By the way, Durkheim measured suicide rates and so do we in our day. Suicide is the purposeful ending of one's own life for any reason. Suicide Rate is the numbers of suicides per 100,000 people in a population.

    Interestingly, the Suicide Prevention Resource Center gives a few suicide prevention strategies that relate to social integration: "Strong connections to family and community support, cultural and religious beliefs that discourage suicide and support self-preservation and various other types of social support are recommended" (retrieved 13 January, 2009 from the "Risk and Protective Factors for Suicide," National Strategy for Suicide Prevention: Goals and Objectives for Action, 2001).

    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Suicide Rates per 100,000 United States, Age Categories 1990 to 2010 (National Center for Health Statistics. Health, United States, 2013: With Special Feature on Prescription Drugs. Hyattsville, MD. 2014.)

    This page titled 6.3: Challenges of Adolescence is shared under a CC BY-NC license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by CK-12 Foundation via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform.

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