Kids today, what do they know? Turns out, a lot

Fewer young people are engaging in risky behavior than only a quarter century ago. Why this moral shift in the next generation?

AP Photo
Paige Petri, a student, poses at Horizon High School, a school that allows teens to get counseling and drug testing while they study alongside other recovering addicts, in Madison, Wis. Petri said she started smoking pot and getting high on cough medicine two years ago. Now a student at Horizon, she said she expects to graduate in a couple of years and that it likely wouldn’t have been possible if not for the Madison school.

When entrepreneur Eric Greenberg conducted a survey of young Americans for his 2008 book “Generation We,” he found them to be “some of the smartest, most caring, and most spiritually grounded people I have ever met.” They were more mature and responsible than their predecessor generation. Perhaps he was on to something. Recent national data show today’s youth are generally engaging in less risky behavior than a quarter century ago.

In short, teenagers are less likely to drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes, engage in unsafe sex, or have a baby out of wedlock, according to new federal surveys.

This trend does not mean young people have ceased sowing any wild oats. Kids still seek out some taboos as a rite of passage to adulthood. Vaping, for example, has become popular. And too many young drivers still text behind the wheel.

Yet on the whole, kids are making smarter choices than a generation ago, a moral fact worth celebrating as well as contemplating. Is it due to better parenting? Have schools and government become better at teaching the costs of harmful behavior? Or are young people finding safe alternatives, such as digital entertainment and social media, to occupy their idle time?

Mr. Greenberg’s survey of a decade ago found the most important trait of young people was their belief in “the greater good.” If so, many of this generation showed up for Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign. Yes, they enjoyed taking selfies. But as a group, they displayed a selfless goal in their civic engagement.

For millennials (or those born between 1982 and 1996), more than half feel spiritual peace and well-being at least once a week, according to a Pew survey last year. About three-quarters feel a strong sense of gratitude at least weekly.

Resisting harmful substances or risky behavior is not simply a matter of saying no. And fear of consequences may not be enough. Young people who embrace a higher good or a social cause can more easily shrug off the vices of their peers. Somebody is doing something right to influence these trends.

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