TEENS today are basically happy with their own lives and optimistic about their futures. But they also believe the world around them is falling to pieces. That's the message from a survey issued this month by the American Home Economics Association (AHEA).
The association, with funds from Lever Brothers and Chesebrough-Pond's, asked Guideline Research Corporation to seek out and survey teens where they ``live'' - at the shopping malls.
In 15 urban, suburban, and rural centers across the United States, surveyors asked 510 high school juniors and seniors to rate their schools, their parents, their peers, and their concerns and hopes for the future.
Eighty percent of those surveyed said they were basically happy with their life today. Eighty-one percent said they trust their parents.
More than two-thirds expect to go to college, as opposed to the less than half who will actually attend. Almost all those surveyed plan to get an interesting job.
In short, the future looks bright to these American teens. Of course, there is the nuclear war that 42 percent expect to hit sometime in their future, the racial discrimination 58 percent think won't clear up in their lifetime - and the US's steady downhill path that a third of them see.
Some of this glumness about the future may come simply from reading today's headlines, says Jay Friedland, whose firm conducted the survey. But today's teens also live in a more complex and perhaps frightening world than their parents.
Fifty-eight percent of those surveyed, for example, have a friend who has at least contemplated committing suicide. Nearly half reported alcohol abuse among their friends. And 32 percent knew someone who had been sexually abused.
Asked about themselves and their experience, however, teens - especially white, suburban teens - admit to far fewer of these problems.
Only 8 percent say they have an alcohol problem or have contemplated suicide - a percentage that researcher Friedland is inclined to attribute more to teen-age save-of-face than to reality.
Teen advice columnist Beth Winship thinks the 58 percent suicide figure is closer to reality:
``Teen-age suicide attempts have gone up something like 300 percent in the last decade,'' she points out.
``Of course, this runs all the way from `If my boyfriend leaves, I'll kill myself' to much more serious attempts. And drugs and alcohol are factors in nearly every high school, which teens have to find a way to deal with.''
Blacks and Hispanics reported greater concern over drug and alcohol abuse than their white peers did, with 72 percent of the minorities saying that drugs are the greatest danger facing the country today.
Mr. Friedland feels that this higher percentage (compared with 56 percent of their white peers) is due to more openness in the answers received from blacks and Hispanics rather than to a greater prevalence of drugs and alcohol in minority cultures.
There were few other places where the teens' race or gender made a difference in their answers. Ninety-five percent of the females surveyed believed that men and women should share equally in the housework duties, for example - an idea only 70 percent of the males agreed with.
But overall, Friedland points out, males and females, blacks, whites, and Hispanics choose the same top issues as being most important to them.
The bulk of those issues center on money, with getting enough to pay for college at the top of the list. Four of the top 10 concerns expressed by teens in the survey dealt with economics, a thrust that columnist Winship feels reflects the ``general social atmosphere.
``I hate to call it yuppism, just making more money so you can buy a big car, but these kids are following a [parental] role model of consumerism.
``I get a lot of letters from kids who feel overpressured by parents to do well, get into college, get a good job to make money,'' she adds.
No. 2 on the list of concerns is a fear of contracting AIDS, something Friedland believes reflects both their awakening sexuality and exposure to a drug culture.
Mrs. Winship is heartened by the concern: ``We thought they weren't taking it seriously enough,'' she says. A third of those surveyed report that they have changed their sexual practices in response to information about the disease.
The schools' efforts to educate teens about AIDS, drugs, alcohol, and sex received adequate to high marks among most of these teens. And teens - particularly blacks - felt their schools were trying to help them make career choices.
But as Gail House, executive director of AHEA, puts it, ``It's sobering to realize that teens perceive we feel we're doing well.''
Those surveyed gave low marks to their schools' assistance in making major life decisions, or help with catastrophic life events such as divorce and abuse.
Winship thinks this reflects the growing ``back-to-basics'' approach of educators today:
``Counseling isn't a basic,'' she says, ``and the schools are having to cut back. Unfortunately, more and more teens aren't learning how to deal with these events at home, either.''
AHEA hopes to use this and subsequent surveys to strengthen home economics curricula, with a particular emphasis on problem solving and decisionmaking.