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Last Updated: Thursday, 2 November 2006, 13:01 GMT
Why UK teenagers struggle to cope
By Mark Easton
BBC News home editor

Young person
Disconnected and disengaged...
British teenagers are among the most badly behaved in Europe, a study by think-tank the Institute for Public Policy Research suggests. Why?

In Britain we have come to both demonise and fear our teenagers: the yobs, the hoodies, the street gangs - the Asbo generation which terrorises neighbourhoods.

"Kids hanging around" is now regarded as the greatest social nuisance of our age.

As the new IPPR report puts it: "Commentators fear that British youth is on the verge of mental breakdown, at risk from anti-social behaviour, self-harm, drug and alcohol abuse. These concerns are, to an extent, borne out."

Such gloom is in contrast to evidence that there has never been a better time to be young.

Good times

More British teenagers leave school with good qualifications and go to university than ever before.

Youth unemployment has fallen dramatically in the last 25 years.

Today's parents are richer than ever before and young people have access to an extraordinary range of activities and opportunities undreamt of even a generation ago.

And yet the mental well-being of our adolescents is among the worst in Europe: one in 10 teenage girls has self-harmed. Child obesity is increasing.

Southern European nations with a strong Catholic tradition and a focus on the family do not share the same level of delinquency

Our youngsters are more consumerist in their outlook than the Americans.

Concern about adolescents is not new, but what this research does is put the UK's experience in an international context - and the conclusions are troubling.

The European comparisons, putting our youngsters at or close to the top of every indicator of bad behaviour, suggest the causes are cultural.

Southern European nations with a strong Catholic tradition and a focus on the family do not share the same level of delinquency.

Scandinavian countries with a large welfare state and a strong sense of civic engagement also perform better.

'Hanging out'

But in the UK, where we have seen big changes in family structures - rising rates of divorce and single parenthood - and where the state traditionally resists intervening in domestic life, young people have been left to their own devices.

"Hanging out with mates" is what teenagers do in the UK.

In contrast to their European counterparts, they spend far more time with their peers than with adults where they miss out on the development of what are called "soft skills" - the social and personal development which is increasingly vital in a country built around service industry.

The days of young men leaving school at the first opportunity to go down the pit or into the shipyard have all but disappeared.

Those young men today are struggling to cope in a world which demands high levels of socialisation.

Teenagers play football
Could sport be an answer?

The IPPR report claims that social skills are as important, if not more important, than the academic qualifications our children are urged to achieve.

The key is that youngsters grow up in a warm, nurturing environment with plenty of adult interaction.

It doesn't have to be the traditional nuclear family although statistically children brought up by two married, biological parents do better than those from single-parent families or people cohabiting.

What the report amounts to is a challenge of traditional youth policy.

It points out that youngsters who go to a youth club are 6% more likely to smoke in adulthood, 1% more likely to be a single parent, 1% more likely to be a victim of crime and 5% more likely to have no qualifications than those who don't.

Why do we constantly blame the children?
Caroline, London

By contrast, those that went to structured sports or community centres are 3% less likely to be depressed; 5% less likely to be single, separated or divorced; 3% less likely to be in social housing and 2% less likely to have no qualifications.

The conclusions are obvious - but far from easy.

We need to repair the disconnect between our adolescents and the adult world.

That is not going to happen in a hurry but as the IPPR report puts it: "Young people who do not have access to the factors that develop their non-cognitive abilities are increasingly vulnerable to failure, while their better socialised peers will increasingly succeed."


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