Don’t Today’s High Schoolers Realize They’re Supposed to Be Miserable?

As our youth fades, we take solace in assuming the current generation of teenagers is tormented by adolescent angst. How disappointing, then, to learn that the young folks aren’t living up to our expectations. A survey of high school students by the Horatio Alger Association finds them a mostly upbeat bunch, alienated neither from their parents nor from society in general.

For starters, three-fourths of respondents said they get along with their parents or guardians either “extremely well” (27 percent) or “very well” (47 percent). When the teens were asked to cite one or two ways in which they’d like to spend more of their free time, the top choice was “spending time with your family” (50 percent), putting it ahead of “spending time with your friends” (44 percent), “working out or playing sports” (22 percent) and “working at a paying job” (17 percent). The findings suggest few high schoolers feel isolated. For 91 percent, there’s “at least one family member who I can confide in and talk to about things.” Ninety percent said there’s “at least one teacher or administrator who I can talk to about my school problems.” More striking, 70 percent said there’s at least one school staffer with whom they can discuss “my personal problems.” This network of support helps explain why more students “feel hopeful and optimistic” about the future (75 percent) than “worried and pessimistic” (21 percent).

Of course, school is a major source of stress for teens. When asked to say which of various social pressures is “a major problem” for them, 42 percent picked “pressure to get good grades.” Fewer were as vexed by “pressure to look a certain way” (16 percent), “family pressures” (15 percent) or “loneliness or feeling left out” (9 percent). Even fewer cited “pressure to do drugs or drink” (8 percent) or “pressure to have sex” (8 percent). In any event, the good news about pressure to get good grades is that it works: Asked to describe their last report card, three-fourths said they got “mostly As” (32 percent), “mostly Bs” (7 percent) or “a mix of As and Bs” (35 percent).

Grownups might fear that high schoolers are corrupted by the cheesy images pop culture sends their way. As it happens, lots of teenagers share this concern. The poll asked the kids whether the media (including music, movies, TV and video games) have a positive or negative effect on the “morals and values of young people today.” “Negative” trounced “positive” by 49 percent to 12 percent; 34 percent of respondents see no effect in either direction. Intending to pander to teen tastes, purveyors of pop culture instead have appalled much of their potential audience.