Los Angeles’s Astounding Youth Trends Terrifying Everyone
Amid the dire commentaries about youth currently dominating public forums, the real question we should be asking is: how are supposedly reckless, impulsive, risk-taking teenagers achieving such strikingly low rates of drug overdose, suicide, and violent crime that afflict grownups?
In fact, increasingly racially diverse younger Millennials and Generation Z are bringing astonishing improvements in youth behaviors. They are not the “teen-agers” adults have long disparaged.
Start with guns, dominating news after every mass shooting. Commentaries feature the statement that “guns are the leading cause of (external) death among American children.” This is true in L.A. County, where 68 teens died by gunfire in 2021. What no one mentions is L.A.’s teenage gun toll has hovered at half-century lows over the last five years, down 85% from 470 in 1990 and 161 in 1975.
Further, while commentators endlessly clarion a small increase in teenage gun homicides during the COVID pandemic (up from 57 in 2019), none mentioned that gun deaths among parent ages leaped even more – from 119 to 196 among ages 30-39, and 53 to 101 for ages 40-49.
Bizarrely, commentators either dodge the big question – who is shooting kids? – or lie (“just kids killing kids”). The real answer is too disturbing: “The biggest reason guns are the leading death cause for American children and youth is because American grownups are shooting them.” If taken seriously, that would upend the entire gun debate.
The FBI’s Supplementary Homicide Report showing age of victim by age of murderer for over 3,000 Los Angeles homicides since 2010 show only 17% of the suspects in gun murders, and 12% in total murders, of victims under age 18 also were under 18. Grownup shooters age 21 and older murder many more kids and nearly all adult victims.
L.A. is on the leading edge of vanishing crime by youth. Over the last half-century, LA’s youth (five in six of whom now are of color) reduced their criminal arrests by a staggering 96%, from 108,298 in 1975 and 63,177 in 1990 to 7,935 in 2019 and 3,344 in 2021 (no, these are not typos).
While the press trumpets “surges” in “youth violence,” the latest (2021) L.A. law enforcement statistics report arrests for violent felonies for their age groupings: 20-29 (8,449), 30-39 (7,387), and 40 and older (6,995). All teens under age 20: 1,198. Violence arrests among juveniles have fallen by 85% over the last generation. The popular, unscientific myth that teenagers’ “undeveloped brains” render them innately impulsive and risky is being demolished by teens themselves.
Drugs, suicide, pregnancy, dropout
The Centers for Disease Control’s latest tabulations of fentanyl (synthetic opioid) deaths in Los Angeles County from 2020 into 2023 contain a shock for those believing teens are the crisis: Ages 20-29 (899 deaths); 30-39 (976); 40-49 (629); 50-59 (528); 60 and older (277). Ages 19 and younger? 136.
The CDC’s figures on suicide and suspected suicides in Los Angeles since 2020 are similar: ages 20-29 (426), 30-39 (429), 40-49 (380), 50-59 (384), and 60 and older (623). All ages under age 20: 109.
Unfortunately, commentaries repeat scary-sounding but meaningless cliches (which fooled even the astute late comedian George Carlin) like, “suicide is the third leading cause of death among teenagers.” That’s not because teens are uniquely vulnerable to suicide (just the opposite), but because teens rarely die from big killers like heart disease, cancer, and Covid-19.
We can lament the tragedies afflicting young people that still happen without scapegoating, stigmatizing, and abandoning fact, fairness, and context. The crusade across the nation to blame every social crisis on youth may invoke tones of caring and concern, but it is ugly and dangerous, spawning policies that threaten teens’ rights and social media access they use to reduce risks.
Births by L.A. mothers under age 20 (still mostly fathered by men 20 and older) plunged from 24,746 in 1990 to 2,751 in 2021. High school dropout rates among local 15-24 year-olds plummeted by 71%, while college enrollment and graduation rates rose by 62%.
Why did these dramatic improvements occur?
America did something right after all, but no one knows about it. Research by ChildTrends, economist Rick Nevin, and we at YouthFacts and the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice show teenage behavior trends closely track levels of child poverty and its hazards, like children’s toxic lead exposure. What we mislabel as “adolescent risk” actually results from economic and environmental conditions, not adolescents’ allegedly innate recklessness.
Since the early 1990s, the Earned Income Tax Credit and related government transfers have slashed youth poverty levels by 80% while Environmental Protection Agency regulations reduced lead in children’s blood by 95%. The EITC, EPA, and teens themselves are America’s biggest crime fighters.
Unfortunately, revolutionary improvement and comparative safety threaten the scary image of teenagers interest groups and media need. The Centers for Disease Control’s latest survey trumpeting a teenage “mental health crisis” finds the proportion of 12-17-year-olds reporting depression and anxiety has risen sharply over the decade. Authorities and media commentators are rushing to blame social media. Several in Congress propose banning younger teens from online platforms.
Bans like that potentially are dangerous. The Pew Research Center’s detailed 2022 study found large majorities of teens saying, “social media gives them some level of connection… reassures them that they have people to support them during tough times, and… makes them feel more accepted.”
It is much more likely that teens are more depressed because their parents are more depressed, suicidal, drug-abusing, and abusive. Adult depression has tripled in recent years. The same CDC survey found the proportions of teens reporting violent and emotional abuses inflicted by household adults have doubled and quadrupled, respectively, since 2014. More than half of teens report emotional abuses by parents, several times more than report bullying at school or online.
More depressed and anxious teenagers – especially LGBT youth, the most bullied by parents – are a normal response to more troubled grownups and oblivious authorities indulging the luxury to evade distressing realities teens cannot escape.
Humbly acknowledging crucial adult contexts and treating teenagers objectively would mean giving up the unwritten rule Americans apparently value more than safety: blaming powerless outgroups for mental illness, suicide, drug addiction, crime, and violence, stigmatized as evidencing weakness and deficient morals. We should eagerly acknowledge and understand this dynamic new generation, not lie about and fear it.