Adolescence has traditionally been marked by the eventual process of self-discovery, when one develops an identity and processes a set of values. But recent incidents in our area suggest something may be going awry.
Last Sunday night, a 28-year-old journalist for WPHL-TV (Channel 17), Colleen Campbell, was arrested after she had been drinking at a Philadelphia comedy club. She cursed repeatedly at police outside the venue and has since been fired by the station.
On Monday night, a video appeared on Facebook showing teens attacking a mentally challenged man in Philadelphia. What was perhaps most disturbing in the video were the smiles on the boys’ faces. Police arrested four teens on Tuesday.
And in May, a man with cerebral palsy was mocked and then punched in the parking lot of a West Chester 7-11. Barry Baker, 29, has been charged with assault in the case.
All three events were recorded by cameras.
What is going on? Are we reverting to the same folks who showered Santa with icy snowballs back at Franklin Field in 1968? Not necessarily. Similar brutal scenarios are taking place around the United States.
Recent research has concluded that the brain’s prefrontal cortex — the part of the brain that involves risk, decision-making, and behavior — may not be fully developed until one is 27 years old. And with nearly everyone equipped with a smartphone video camera today, bad behavior in public will almost certainly be recorded by someone.
Why would adolescents or those slightly older engage in such outlandish behavior? A number of factors seem to be in place. For one, any YouTube or Facebook depiction provides the adolescent assailant with some measure of notoriety, even if that depiction is largely negative.
Second, most parents today seem to hand the adolescent car keys of adult living over without any real instruction. The adolescent therefore lives in a world of anomie, a sociological concept of a society without any normative behavior.
I was recently counseling a bright writer who was weighing job opportunities. When I asked her how one potential job related to her personal values, she seemed a bit perplexed. She told me I was the first person to ask such a question.
With institutionalized religion on a profound downward slide, especially among adolescents and their parents, no clear set of normative values is evident today. By and large, public schools have so shied away from any mention of religion — for fear of not adequately separating church and state — that they are implicitly sending students the message that practicing one’s faith or sharing one’s own religious viewpoints with others is wrong.
But when we limit our discussions of faith, we often also limit our discussion of rights versus wrongs and whole value systems as well.
The same is typically true at the collegiate level. Instead of requiring some knowledge of religious viewpoints and values, the higher-education system in America largely implies that any religious practice or adherence to a clear set of values is necessarily exclusionary and therefore intolerant of other perspectives.
The consequence is that most adolescents barely have a basic understanding of the Judeo-Christian perspective, much less an idea of the basic precepts of Islam, Buddhism, etc.
In Ben Sasse’s new book, The Vanishing American Adult, the Republican senator from Nebraska argues: “We are living in an America of perpetual adolescence. Our kids simply don’t know what an adult is anymore — or how to become one. Many don’t see a reason even to try. Perhaps more problematic, the older generations have forgotten that we need to plan to teach them.”
By and large, students are exposed much more to the texts from their smartphones than the values of their educators and parents. In researching my forthcoming documentary, Cellular Aftershocks, I have discovered that the barrage of texts from friends has largely become more influential in adolescent life than the views of parents.
Studies conducted by marketing professor James Roberts at Baylor University found that the average college female spends 10 hours a day on her smartphone, and the average male about eight. Compare that with the number of hours modern parents spend talking with adolescents about values and appropriate behavior.
We cannot expect appropriate behavior and attitudes from young citizens if parents, teachers, and other influential individuals abdicate those responsibilities.
Dwight DeWerth-Pallmeyer is an associate professor of communications studies at Widener University. firstname.lastname@example.org.