Does ‘Adolescence’ Mean ‘Abstain’ from Everything’?

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America's ultimate prevention goal is that no teenager ever have sex, drink alcohol, witness explicit media, enjoy free time not rigidly structured and supervised by adults, or get access to any dangerous item. In effect, major institutions propose abolishing adolescence and creating a delayed, abrupt transition from total-abstinence childhood to anything-goes adulthood.

Forget whether such an absolutist scheme is possible. Is it smart? Consider the strongest evidence for enforcing teenage abstinence: the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's claim that the legal drinking age of 21 outlawing teen alcohol use "saved 19,121 lives" since 1975. The number is junk. NHTSA wildly inflated the small reduction in teenage traffic fatalities from an outdated Insurance Institute study, using 1984 data, attributed to the 21 drinking age. This study found that in states that raised drinking ages, traffic deaths fell 9 percent more among 18-to-20-year-olds than among drivers age 21-24.

However, more comprehensive, long-term research finds the 21 drinking age has a "seesaw" effect: teen fatalities fall, adult deaths rise. Economists Peter Asch (of Rutgers University) and David Levy (University of Baltimore, and a consultant for safety lobbies) reported that raising the drinking age to 21 slightly reduced fatal crashes by 18-to-20-year-olds at the expense of more deaths among 21-to-24-year-olds. The "legal drinking age has no perceptible influence on fatalities," their exhaustive, federally funded Journal of Policy Analysis & Management study concluded, "but inexperience in drinking is an apparent risk factor independent of age."

Their findings were confirmed in a 2001 American Economics Association paper by Swarthmore College's Thomas Dee and the University of Maryland's William Evans. "The nationwide increases in [minimum legal drinking age] may have merely shifted some of the fatality risks from teens to young adults," they conclude from analyzing multiple factors. Raising drinking ages from 19 to 21 cut 18-to-19-year-olds' traffic deaths by 5 percent, but increased fatalities among 22-to-23 year-olds by 8 percent. "The magnitude of mortality redistribution," Dee and Evans report, "is quite large."

These findings suggest the 21 drinking age doesn't save lives; it merely shifts deaths, perhaps even increases them. Why? Because "learning by doing" is "an important component of teens' maturation," Dee and Evans note. To the extent that age-based prohibitions prevent adolescents from accomplishing their necessary task of practicing adult behaviors in adult settings, risks accumulate in more perilous young adulthood, where family and peer controls are weaker. Nor is risk-taking an "adult right": In 40 percent of the drunken accidents that kill teens and 90 percent that kill children, the drunk driver is over age 21.

These points challenge popular policies that forbid teenagers from trying behaviors acceptable for adults, or stigmatize them for doing so. That teenage experimentation is healthy, that adults can influence but not ban it, are widely recognized in other cultures. Europeans generally obligate adults both to refrain from unduly risky conduct themselves and to create safe opportunities for youths to rehearse accepted adult behaviors (drinking, sex, self-supervision). However, Americans hold even perilous adult rights (heavy public drinking, handgun possession) sacrosanct while enjoining adolescent experimentation.

Americans' acceptance of dangerous irresponsibility as a grownup privilege generates its own lunatic logic. We treat teenagers as children when they're good and adults when they're bad. We would execute a 14-year-old but deny him a last cigarette; allow a middle-ager to have sex with a high schooler who is forbidden to watch an R-rated movie; imprison youths longer than adults who commit identical offenses; and let an adult with 10 DWIs drink legally but expel a high school senior who sips a beer.

Sure, it's confusing for teenagers to grow up in a society where being "grown up" doesn't mean behaving better, but making better excuses for misbehaving. Sure, Americans will continue to suffer epidemic social ills as long as we justify our refusal to demand maturity from adults by substituting zero-tolerance constraints to prevent youths from emulating adults. It's a high price to pay for adult intemperance and prevention-program job security.

The writings of Mike Males, a Justice Policy Institute researcher and University of California at Santa Cruz sociologist, can be viewed at

Note: In Mike Males' April and June columns, "Add Health" was used as an abbreviation for the University of Minnesota School of Public Health study of adolescent risk, which used data from the National Longitudinal Study on Adolescent Health. The longitudinal study, often referred to as "Add Health," serves as the database for numerous other studies; it should not be confused with any other study (such as the University of Minnesota's) that uses its data.