Every parent of children approaching their teens must have been pleased to read some social research reported in the Herald on Wednesday.

Researcher Jude Ball of Otago University's Wellington campus found fewer New Zealand teenagers today are binge-drinking or taking illicit drugs than they were 10 to 15 years ago, teenage pregnancies are down and smoking in this age group has all but disappeared.

The improvements are substantial. The number of those aged 16 and 17 binge-drinking was down to 23 per cent in 2012, compared to 40 per cent in a 2001 survey. Teen births per thousand females aged 15-19 were at 24 per cent in 2013, down from 33 per cent in 1996 and the number of 14 to 15-year-olds smoking, 15 per cent at the millennium, was just 2.5 per cent at last count.

New Zealand is not unusual. Most developed countries are finding similar results. Education, so often promoted as the answer to everything, probably is.


Concerted educational campaigns against smoking, binge-drinking and other "risk behaviours" seem to be finally getting through. The messages have been strongly reinforced by schools and generally by news media for two generations now, and today's parents of teenagers have grown up with them. The parents probably deserve most of the credit for applying the values they absorbed.

But Jude Ball suspects another reason for the decline in risky behaviour - social media.

Some in her field argue social media is replacing risky behaviour because adolescents no longer need to go out together to be sociable. Their are in touch with friends constantly on their phones and having as much fun gaming online as they used to have in company.

Ball points out that not everything about teenagers today is better. Healthy eating and exercise are not among the improving figures and mental health might be deteriorating, though that may be because young people are given more encouragement to share their anxieties today.

Nevertheless, deteriorating standards of physical and mental health are evident in the numbers of overweight young people around, the drop in memberships of sports clubs and high levels of youth suicide.

Canvas today features British novelist Allison Pearson writing about teenage parenting, the subject of her second book. She believes it is harder to be a parent today than at any time in history.

Teenagers "might be in their own bedroom but there is no respite from the 24-hour connectedness to the peer group, which can bully or induce envy and self-loathing."

One way or another, it seems, adolescence is risky. If young people are not getting together to endanger their lives, health and future plans with alcohol, cars and casual sex, they are alone on their phones, inactive, eating badly, texting and sharing more than they should, living in a virtual reality rather than the physical world of complete people, live music and culture, contact sports and genuine relationships.

But if concerted campaigns against smoking, drink-driving, teenage pregnancy and the like can have some success - and surely the trends are encouraging on that score - it must be possible to promote more moderate use of the internet too. Teenagers now need to get out more, carefully.