Date of this Version
Review of 1) Robert Epstein, The case against adolescence: Rediscovering the adult in every teen (Quill Driver Books, 2007), and 2) Roger J. R. Levesque, Adolescents, media, and the law: What developmental science reveals and free speech requires (Oxford University Press, 2007).
Robert Epstein believes American teens are in chaos. They drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes, abuse a variety of other drugs, have eating disorders, contract sexual diseases, and get pregnant. They carry weapons, join gangs, and commit all manner of crimes. They partake of a mindless peer culture. They are angry, violent, depressed, and suicidal. Not all of them, of course. But disproportionately, Epstein argues, compared to other age groups, other societies, and previous periods of history, American adolescents are in turmoil and out of control. We’d all be better off, he maintains, in a world without adolescents.
This part of the argument might lead one to picture Epstein as a grumpy old guy who hates adolescents, but in fact Epstein believes that teens themselves would be better off if we didn’t classify them as adolescents. What Epstein decries is not adolescents but adolescence, the cultural construction that produces people like those described above. Epstein lauds the competence and defends the rights of teenagers—that is, people who are numerically in their teen years (13–19). The problem with adolescents, he insists, is that they are capable people who are treated as if they were children. The cultural construct of adolescence, Epstein argues, must be dismantled in its entirety. If his mission succeeds, there will be a world without adolescence, and thus without adolescents, because those we now classify as adolescent will simply be young adults.
Throughout his work, Levesque provides far more detail and nuance than Epstein, as would be expected by his academic audience, but the conclusions he reaches, if somewhat less radical, are much the same (see also Hine, 1999). In Adolescents, media, and the law, in particular, he provides detailed reviews of media effects in relation to adolescent aggression, body image, smoking, and sexuality. His conclusion is that media influence everything but determine nothing. Adolescent behavior and development are deeply and thoroughly influenced by the media within which they are immersed but particular experiences do not cause particular results. Adolescents, Levesque concludes, are active agents working their way through a maze of media. We can best help them not by picking out what shouldn’t be allowed to impinge on their allegedly innocent young minds but rather by promoting their ability to engage with media productively. Levesque’s massive reviews remind us that adolescents are active agents navigating complex informational and social environments, not passive recipients of bad ideas. We should assist them by supporting and promoting their dynamic self-determination; we undermine this goal when we restrict them on the basis of their alleged immaturity. This cautious, research-based conclusion falls not far short of Epstein’s more radical call to save adolescents from adolescence by (re)creating a world in which teenagers are simply young adults.