This is the 2007 version. Click here for the 2017 chapter 10 table of contents.

American Teenagers

Offer, Ostrov, and Howard gathered questionnaire data from 20,000 American teenagers in high schools and used a statistical technique to select a representative group of 1300 questionnaires for analysis. The data revealed that "Eighty-five percent of the adolescents tested report being happy most of the time." They continued:

What did researchers discover in a study of 20,000 teenagers?

"The generation not in evidence among the majority of subjects we studied... They perceive their parents as being satisfied with them and they do not seem to harbor bad feelings toward their parents. ("Adolescence Appears Far Happier Than Adults Usually Imagine," 1987, July 7)

How did Csikszentmihalyi and Larson (1983) study adolescent mood swings, and what did they discover?

Csikszentmihalyi and Larson (1983) used phone pagers to gather data from adolescents at random intervals. When beeped, teenagers were supposed to write down in a booklet what they were doing, what they were thinking, and how they felt. Some of the teens fit the "rebel" stereotype or expressed hatred for parents. However, most diary entries were not so dramatic. The researchers found that teenage mood swings were no more common or severe than adult mood swings. Teenagers with mood swings were no more unhappy or troubled, on the average, than those with more level emotional lives. It was true that negative thoughts were ten times more common than positive thoughts when teenagers were with their families, but most of these "negative thoughts" were of the "I'm bored" variety. More rare were extreme comments such as, "I can't stand it-my mother is crazy" (Kohn, 1984).

What was revealed by an eight-year study of teens?

An eight-year study of 300 teenagers by Francis Ianni of Teachers College of Columbia University compared teens in urban, suburban, and rural environments. This study drew the following conclusions:

—Teenagers had attitudes more like parents than peers.

—Many teens were seeking rules, "often desperately" according to Dr. Ianni, rather than trying to break them.

—There were big differences between problems and opportunities of urban, suburban, and rural teens. (Collins, 1984)

How did city teens differ from suburban and rural teens?

The researchers went on to explain that big city teenagers were most likely to reject the values of larger society and identify instead with the "rules" of a gang or teen subculture. Some of these teenagers seemed destined to cause conflict with society later in life, according to Ianni.

In "middle class suburban settings" the stresses and problems were of a different nature. Suburban adolescents were less rebellious and more competitive.

"The situation can be highly competitive, focusing on the quest for grades or athletic achievement," Dr. Ianni said. "The casualties, then, are kids who can't compete." (Collins, 1984)

In country settings, teenage life most often centered on "home, school and church." The most common problem among rural adolescents was a sense of "isolation and withdrawal." Teenagers in these areas often expressed an intention to "get away" after high school. They saw few economic opportunities in their hometowns, and only a few had plans to continue a family farm or business.

How are things the same and different, in the late 2000s?

These studies are all from the 1980s, but little has changed in twenty years, regarding the overall picture for American teens. Teenagers still resemble parents more than peers, country teens still differ from urban teens (and still tend to move away from small towns, seeking jobs). Urban teens are still more likely to encounter gang influences, and middle class suburban teens are still highly competitive. If anything, the second half of the decade of the 2000s is seeing a maturing of teen culture in the United States, with teen pregnancies down, college application rates up, and political awareness and intentions to vote on the increase: all positive signs.

Write to Dr. Dewey at

Don't see what you need? Psych Web has over 1,000 pages, so it may be elsewhere on the site. Do a site-specific Google search using the box below.

Custom Search

Copyright © 2007-2011 Russ Dewey