Social Norms in Teenagers

Modern teens are often described in the media as a narcissistic generation, unconcerned with any kind of social norms and disrespectful toward their elders, according to a 2006 article in "USA Today." As the parent of a teen, you might find this picture alarming. However, it is also incomplete. Teens aren't unconcerned with social norms, but they are sometimes confused about them.


In the "USA Today" article, titled "Are Social Norms Steadily Unraveling?" U.S. teens are described as sloppy, self-obsessed and disrespectful compared to previous generations. The article relied on a study by associate professor Jean Twenge of San Diego State University, which compared surveys from 1958 to 2001 and concluded that modern teens were much less concerned with living up to society's expectations than previous generations. However, Michael Haines of the National Social Norms Research Center, did not agree with those conclusions. According to Haines, teens are very concerned with the expectations of other teens, and those expectations can differ considerably from those of adults.


According to the Resource Center for Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention, social norms in any population group can be defined as the regular behavior of the majority of that group 1. Based on this definition, teenage social norms are actually much less dysfunctional and self-destructive than many people believe. Most teens don't drink, do drugs, steal or join gangs. Most teens wait to have sex for the first time until they feel ready to handle it and most teens who are sexually active use contraception. Although your teen might not be as concerned with proper etiquette as you would prefer, she is not as likely to make self-destructive decisions as you might have been led to believe.

Perceived Norms

Although teen social norms as a whole are a lot more cautious and conservative than they are sometimes portrayed, teens themselves are often unaware of this fact. According to the Resource Center for Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention, most teens don't use drugs but think most other teens do 1. Most teens aren't sexually active but believe most of their peers are. Most teens who are sexually active practice safe sex but think most of their peers don't. The same is true of smoking, drinking and other social issues, according to a Wahoo Public Schools (Nebraska) 2012 newsletter article 2. Because so many teens have an inaccurate idea of what the social norms in their peer group actually are, they can be sometimes be tempted to make bad decisions under the false impression that they are just going along with the crowd.

Social Norming

The same "USA Today" story that asked whether social norms were steadily declining among teens noted that teens would get dressed up nicely to go out to a weekend party, but won't for school. This implies that teens do care about social expectations, but are much more concerned with the expectations of their own peers than with those of teachers or other adults. Teens who get accurate information about the behaviors of their peers become much less likely to experiment inappropriately with drugs, sex or alcohol because they understand that most of their peers aren't doing so either. Educating teens about their peers' behavior is called "social norming," according to the Resource Center for Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention 1. While it might be nice if teens paid a little more attention to the opinions of the adults in their lives, it's much more important that they make good decisions for their health and safety.

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