They carry beepers, prefer permanent tattoos to body piercing and are just about as likely to take lessons in shooting guns as they are to play musical instruments. Four in 10 personally know someone who is gay or lesbian, and six in 10 say distributing condoms in schools is a good idea.
Teenagers today are worldly, shaped by exposure to a culture that has dropped many of its inhibitions, according to a nationwide poll of 13- to 17-year-olds conducted by the New York Times and CBS News.Yet, the same poll suggests, in some ways they are as wholesome and devoid of cynicism as the generation that wore saddle shoes. They trust their government, admire their parents and believe it is possible to start out poor and become rich. Ninety-four percent say they believe in God. Strong majorities say they never drink alcohol and never smoke cigarettes or marijuana.
On sexual matters, too, they display a notable conservatism. Almost half say sex before marriage is "always wrong" (53 percent of girls agree and 41 percent of boys). Fifty-eight percent of boys and 47 percent of girls say homosexuality is "always wrong."
Fewer than one in four say they have ever had sex, but 71 percent say "a lot" or "some" of the other students at their schools are having sex. And almost half of the same teenagers who say they disapprove of premarital sex favor condom distribution in schools.
"People are going to have sex, and they should have protected sex," said Brett Adam Abel, a 15-year-old from Apopka, Fla., who participated in the poll and agreed to a follow-up interview. "They should have the chance to prevent herpes, AIDS and stuff."
When asked to name the biggest problem faced by teenagers today, 39 percent said drugs, about the same percentage as in a poll of teenagers conducted by the Times and CBS News four years ago. The number who said that violence or crime was the biggest problem facing their generation has dropped dramatically - to 7 percent, down from 22 percent in 1994. The drop may reflect an actual decrease in crime nationally, as documented by federal statistics.
Still, when the youths were asked what they considered the biggest problem in their schools, 16 percent said violence, the most frequent response. The survey followed a wave of shootings at schools in recent months, most notably the killing of four students and a teacher in Jonesboro, Ark., in late March.
"Fights mainly, nothing with guns or anything," said Alison Brown, 14, who attends a public school in Cincinnati. "They don't happen as much as they used to; now it's about once a week. There's less of it because our school has taken tighter control."
Guns are a part of many teenagers' lives, the poll found. Nearly four in 10 say a member of their household owns a gun, and 15 percent say they themselves own one. Thirty-one percent have had instruction in shooting.
Only 2 percent said abortion or pregnancy was the biggest problem facing teenagers. Only 1 percent said it was AIDS. Yet 18 percent said they personally knew someone who had tested positive for HIV, had AIDS or had died of AIDS.
The poll of 1,048 teenagers was conducted by telephone from April 2 through April 7 and had a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points. Many of the responses concerning behavior - on smoking, drinking and sex, for instance - varied widely between younger and older teen-agers. Only 13 percent of 13- to 15-year-olds said they had ever had sex, for example, compared with 38 percent of 16- and 17-year-olds.
The poll makes clear that the post-Cold War generation is coming of age free of preoccupation about nuclear weapons and the survival of the planet. When asked to think about their future, 28 percent said that what worried them most was getting a good job. Eleven percent said it was having enough money, and 9 percent said being successful. Only 3 percent said that what worried them most was the environment.
Defying a stereotype, these teenagers were short on criticism of their parents. Fifty-one percent said they got along with their parents "very well," and 46 percent said "fairly well." Nearly two-thirds said their parents were "in touch with what life is like" for today's teenagers. And 48 percent said they even enjoyed the same types of music as their parents.
But 55 percent agreed that there were times when they wanted to talk to their parents about something but did not. Of these, four out of five said the reason was that their parents "won't understand," and most of the rest said their parents were simply too busy.
When they go out, 89 percent said, they have to tell their parents where they are going.
When asked whom they admired most, 44 percent of girls and 18 percent of boys named their mother. Fathers did not rank as highly; 26 percent of boys and 8 percent of girls said their father was the person they admired most. Some named grandmothers or grandfathers. Five percent said they admired both parents. Nine percent of boys named a sports figure. Five percent of girls named a celebrity.
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