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Shattering Myths About Today’s Teenagers

UWEC professor co-authors book that debunks negative stereotypes about teens

Are teens today lazy, disrespectful and selfish, especially when compared to previous generations?

Nope, says a UW-Eau Claire psychology professor who is the co-author of a new book, Great Myths of Adolescence, that aims to debunk those and other widely held myths about teens.

“The book dispels commonly held misconceptions about teenagers and does damage to the notion that teenagers these days are sex-starved, hot-headed, addicted to screens, lazy, and egocentric,” says Dr. Michael Axelrod.

In the book, Axelrod and his co-authors use science-based evidence to address 50 commonly noted stereotypes and myths about teens.

The myths relate to a wealth of topics including things like sex, self-control, suicide, drugs, technology, and mental health. The authors – all noted experts in the psychology field – define each myth, present research that debunks the myth, and provide summaries of what parents and professionals who work with teens need to know moving forward.

“The teen years can be difficult for some and it doesn’t help that we – meaning parents, adults and teachers, and society – treat teenagers harshly and with little empathy,” Axelrod says. “Believing these myths perpetuates a stereotype that all teenagers are lazy and rude, have poor attitudes, play music too loud, and care about only themselves. This might be true for some teenagers, but not many.”

The myth he hears most often is that teens these days are worse behaved than those of previous generations, Axelrod says. The media and popular culture help perpetuate that myth by often portraying teens in a negative way, especially in movies and TV shows.

In addition, people also often seek evidence that confirms their pre-existing beliefs, while ignoring evidence that refutes those beliefs, a cognitive tendency that encourages the belief of nonsense, Axelrod says. For example, a person is more likely to remember the disrespectful teenager at the mall than the courteous and helpful teenager who bagged their groceries.

As a result, many adults believe teenager behavior is worsening, Axelrod says. However, research indicates declining trends for more serious adolescent problems involving delinquency, drug use and crime.

“Using evidence-based research, we debunk the notion that teens are worse than in earlier generations,” Axelrod says. “The truth is that teens today are more similar than different when compared to teens of previous generations.”

All 50 of the myths highlighted in the book can be debunked using evidence-based science.
“We hope that the book busts some myths, while, at the same time, encourages a more sensible and evidence-based perspective of teens that promotes empathy and understanding,” Axelrod says.

The book is meant for teenagers as well as anyone who interacts with adolescents, from parents and teachers to physicians and psychologists.

“Parents say that adolescence is the developmental period that makes them most anxious, and that’s probably because of many of these myths,” Axelrod says. “Hopefully this book clears up some of the myths that contribute to this viewpoint.”

While the authors address serious topics, they use some humor to help soften the tone, Axelrod says, adding that they also weave in pop culture references.

In addition to Axelrod, the book’s authors include Dr. Jeremy Jewell and Dr. Stephen Hupp, both of Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, and Dr. Mitchell Prinstein of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. All are noted experts in their fields.

Axelrod, director of UW-Eau Claire’s Human Development Center, also teaches a certificate program in adolescent mental health through UW-Eau Claire Continuing Education.
“While I focus on mental health issues of adolescents, I also talk a great deal about typical adolescent development and many of the myths presented in our book,” Axelrod says. “I’ve worked with countless adolescents in the context of being a clinical and school psychologist, and I must say that teens these days do have a very poor reputation despite research to the contrary.”

Hopefully, Axelrod says, the book will help to shatter some of those misconceptions, helping people see today’s young people in a more positive and accurate light.

Judy Berthiaume is senior editor at Integrated Marketing and Communications at UW-Eau Claire.