A New Study Promises Answers to An Old Question: What's Wrong with Our Kids?

updated 12/15/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/15/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

The catalog of statistics is familiar and still alarming: The pregnancy rate for white American teens is more than twice that of any other industrialized country; 20 percent of all teenagers smoke; almost 6 percent use alcohol daily; nearly 500,000 a year attempt suicide. Thousands of programs exist to treat these children in crisis, and yet, says Dr. David A. Hamburg of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, "Our knowledge of how to prevent the serious and widespread casualties of adolescence is limited and fragmented." Next month, for the first time, 24 leaders from the fields of science, law, business, health and education will meet to start addressing two basic questions: Why aren't we making headway against America's persistent teenage tragedies, and how can we do better? The 24 are members of the Council on Adolescent Development, formed and funded by Carnegie, a philanthropic institution that helped finance the research leading to Head Start; they include Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, Sen. Nancy Kassebaum of Kansas, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis and ABC's Nightline host Ted Koppel. The chairman will be Dr. Hamburg, 61, a behavioral scientist and president of the corporation.

Hamburg has been married for 35 years to Dr. Beatrix A. Hamburg, a clinical professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at New York's Mount Sinai School of Medicine, who is also on the council. They have two grown children. In his Manhattan office, David Hamburg spoke with Assistant Editor Bonnie Johnson about the challenges facing his study group.

Did any specific problems lead you to form this council?

It was an interrelated set of problems, including joblessness, violence, delinquency and early pregnancy, which have become common elements on the social landscape. Just as examples, one in 10 adolescent girls becomes pregnant, and in the big cities very close to half the kids don't complete high school. Those are epidemics, and the odds of those kids being cut off from any kind of mainstream employment are very great.

What is it about adolescence that makes it such a vulnerable time?

Adolescence from 10 to 15, which is the group we'll be focusing on, is a time of tremendous upheaval. First there's this biological upheaval of puberty, which is the greatest single set of hormonal changes in one's life and is accompanied by heightened aggressiveness and exploratory behavior. Second, adolescence in our culture marks the time when you're not supposed to be a child anymore but something like an adult. What you get, then, is youngsters trying all kinds of new behavior in search of adult patterns. Combine that with the easy availability of potentially dangerous, if not lethal, instruments and substances, like drugs, vehicles and weapons, and you can get into an awful lot of trouble while you're exploring.

Which kids are at the greatest risk?

Historically, high-risk behavior was more characteristic of boys than girls, but the girls are catching up. In smoking and alcohol use you see that very clearly. Similarly, adolescent pregnancy has been more of a black problem, but the whites and Hispanics are catching up.

Is socioeconomic status a big factor?

Some things we used to think of as ghetto problems are ghetto problems no more. Drug and alcohol use has become nationwide. The underclass problem, however, is to a considerable degree a black problem. The black middle class has been moving out of the inner cities, so you have a sizable number of kids living in severe poverty who have few models of success and no clear perception of opportunity. Considerable ingenuity is now being applied to this problem, for example, by black churches.

Has the breakdown of the nuclear family increased adolescent problems?

There is no doubt that for many it is a handicap to grow up in a single-parent family. By and large there is less opportunity for guidance and support. The weight of evidence so far is that a child who grows up with the sense that there are caring adults around—people who promote health and education and know how to cope with different situations—does pretty well.

How big a factor is stress?

A very important one. A lot of substance abuse is really self-medication for distress. For some kids it may be pressure from parents to succeed. Others feel anxiety and despair about how in the world they're ever going to be an adult who can earn respect, income and stature.

What impact does television have?

Roughly speaking, kids spend as much time watching television as they do in school. We have some idea about the effect of that but not as much as I'd like. The glamorization of drugs, weapons and violence, though perhaps inadvertent, is of concern. There is also great, constructive educational potential in television that is, so far, largely unfulfilled.

What will the council's role be?

I see the council as a guiding and stimulating body with four broad functions. We'll break up into task forces that will first try to clarify the facts about adolescent problems. Second, we'll point out where the gaps in knowledge are. Third, we'll make recommendations about funding new approaches to prevention or expanding those that have proved effective. Finally, the council will recommend policies and programs to both the government and the private sector.

Is the council willing to be controversial? For example, guns are used in most teenage suicides. Can you foresee the council recommending gun control?

My attitude will be: Let the chips fall. All of these problems are inherently controversial. The council must address them with an open mind and a willingness to consider different viewpoints responsibly. But if after all that they come up with a recommendation, however controversial, we'll support it.

How much money is Carnegie putting into this council?

The council will have a three-to-five-year life, and running it will cost $500,000 a year. There will also be grants totaling about $2 million a year for council-related work and model projects. There is a real possibility that the council will have a stimulating effect on grants given by other foundations and government agencies.

Can you give an example of existing projects you'll be looking at?

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is doing wonderful work on comprehensive health clinics in junior and senior high schools. They have already funded seven and are planning to fund 20 new sites. But because the problems are so great, you could put all the foundation money there is in one project and still not meet the need. That's why I think government support is necessary, and it's also why we have to learn fast what the projects are and are not good for, and get the word out.

Why don't more intervention programs seem to work?

It's a very fragmented field. One institute deals with alcohol, another with pregnancy, yet another with smoking, and so on. These agencies tend not to interact, even though in many cases they are dealing with the same people. Nor are they reaching the general public. Parents of younger children have shelves full of books to help them, and the states and localities are like experimental labs—there is a tremendous amount of innovation out there on ways to cope with adolescent problems. The question facing us is, how do you study it all and sort it out and learn what is really good, and for whom?

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