The Truth Behind Teen Culture

Do you think your teenager's mood swings, anger and rebelliousness are awful enough representations of "American teen culture".

Think again.

These are only the tip of the iceberg.

A recent Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) documentary has exposed the reality about what's going on in many teenagers lives. This TV documentary is an eye into teen culture that you won't see on the whitewashed teen sitcoms usually seen on Friday nights.

Sex, group sex, drug and alcohol abuse, violence and gangs were once thought to be a reality found only in the lower class, inner city neighborhoods of America.

But "The Lost Children of Rockdale County", which aired October 19, 1999 on the program Frontline, has shattered that myth.

The 90-minute documentary starts off describing an outbreak of the sexually transmitted disease syphilis amongst a number teenagers in the county's only town, Conyer in 1996.

Seventeen teenagers tested positive for the disease, about 200 others were treated for exposure and about 50 reported engaging in group sex and other "extreme sexual behavior."

Upon investigation, parents, public health officials and other administrators discover the teenagers, who are from middle to upper-class, church-going families, have been involved in these activities.

Producers Rachel Dretzin Goodman and Barak Goodman interview, among others, teens, parents, school counselors, a county commissioner and experts about the outbreak, and on a deeper level, why teens from seemingly "good" backgrounds, would be involved in such activities.

What becomes evident in interviews with the teenagers is the utter lack of direction and structure in their lives, which some admit they crave. Grappling with the fact that their parents are both at work during the day tending careers and trying to provide the good life materially for their kids, these teenagers are given little attention.

That also explains why most of the parties permeated with sex, drugs and alcohol took place between 3 p.m. and 7p.m. and after midnight.

"The sexual activity took place at a number of places. And probably the two most common places for sexual activity to take place were either at the home of one of the adolescents. A lot of the adolescents had parents who worked, were at home alone, had parents who put in 40, 60, 80 hour work weeks...," noted Claire Sterk, who was a member of the team which investigated the syphilis outbreak.

"Sometimes a parent would drop off their own children at a home where one of these sex parties was going to take place but the notion was "this looks like a nice house, these must be nice people so nothing is going to happen that I would not approve of," she added.

Parents, on the other hand, talk about the loss of control and discipline with their kids. Whether it's the fear of their violent teenagers, or their power as parents taken away by authority figures like school counselors and the police, who encourage permissive attitudes and lax ways of dealing with rebellious teens.

A breakdown in communication (see between parents and teenagers also explain why these young adults seek fun and acceptance with their "surrogate family" of friends, who often pressure them into these activities.

While most reviewers of the documentary praised it for its intelligent and insightful treatment of the topic, others felt it was too weak on certain fronts.

One reviewer for the Atlanta Constitution noted the documentary presented teens at two extremes: "sex-mad" or "devoutly Christian virgins", while a reviewer at the Boston Globe felt its treatment of the subject matter was too superficial.

But no matter what the treatment or portrayal, the fact is that this is a facet of teen culture in America today. Communities and parents may want to bury their heads in the sand (as they did in Rockdale when a town hall meeting was called to discuss the syphilis outbreak) and run away from it, but this is what their kids face, especially if they attend public schools. They can reject it, or accept it, but the power of peer pressure is unmistakably evident .

While some may be tempted to say this represents only a small group of teens in Rockdale County, some of those involved in the case think otherwise.

"This is a cross-section of adolescence in the United States in the 1990s," says Sterke. "That even although we might be really shocked to hear some of the things that took place in many ways the dynamics that surrounded all this are common for adolescence all over."

To read more about this documentary visit PBS.

Statistics on Teens in America
PBS Documentary: The Truth Behind Teen Culture
Facts on Youth Smoking, Health, and Performance
Some Tips to help you Communicate with your teen and others
Tips for Teens on Drugs, alcohol, and your friends
How parents can help kids make friends but resist negative peer pressure
[Discuss: Parent to Parent].........[Teen to Teen]


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