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Information Overload or Overdose?

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Message Bret Stephenson
A couple of months ago, I explained the paradox behind why a logical anti-drug campaign like Just Say No has failed to live up to its common-sense approach: too much information about drugs too early takes away some of the fear or mystique of drugs that actually prevents many children from experimenting early on. Literally educating children about drugs increases the chances they will indulge in them. It is preferable, and against that initial logic to keep them in the dark, because young children are not prone to smoking and ingesting substances they know little or nothing about.

This modern propensity to give information to our kids is backfiring in a number of ways. The media's mantra of the "public's right to know" mostly sells their products and often gives kids more information than they really need. In modern times, we are definitely an information-based society. Hundreds of channels are offered through cable TV companies. The Internet is built to disseminate information. Newspapers and TV news bombard households with a never-ending supply of drama, as do soap operas and reality TV. We keep thinking that if we ever get enough information, we'll be better off somehow. For decades movies were made for families; now we have to rate them so parents can determine how much questionable content to allow our kids to view.

Part of the problem with this mindset is that too much information kills curiosity in teens. Adolescents, as we all know, often they believe they know everything already. Offering them every bit of adult life and understanding on a media platter adds to their belief that they don't need to learn anything more, and kills their curiosity about learning. More and more every year, I see teens becoming less and less curious about life and our culture. Part of this relates to the need for adults to model behavior that teens actually want to emulate. Historically, teens have always wanted to become like the adults around them, because those adults had all the (perceived) perks in life. And of course the adolescent mind loves to see just the funs parts of adult life without recognizing the deep responsibilities most of us pay for those rewarding moments and possessions.

A few years ago I came to see curiosity as a developmental aspect of adolescence, like puberty, search for identity, individuation, and egocentricity, to name a few. Developmental challenges, or stages, are those aspects we all go through in order to grow. Adolescence is the second greatest developmental growth spurt we humans go through, second only to birth-2 years old. Successful completion of the developmental stages helps ensure a youth will develop into a mature and responsible adult. Failure to grow through the developmental stages is just that: failure to grow. This often leads to those 45-year-old folks we know who act 14.

Native cultures, who I've explained before dealt successfully with teens for millennia without having to resort to incarceration or medication, knew how to use teen curiosity as a lure to get teens to join the adult club. How? By initially keeping secrets about important life aspects until adolescence and focusing largely on survival training prior to that. Children raised in indigenous cultures are taught how to survive, first and foremost. It doesn't do any good to promote a youth forward who can't cook, kill, tan hides, track animals, garden, or make tools and weapons.

Important aspects of adult life such as procreation, birth control, parenting, relationships, creation, religion and so on were usually NOT offered to children or teens until they were involved in their initiation into adulthood. By withholding these critical pieces of adulthood, the teens were forced to join the adult club to access this information. Native cultures all over the world used this same process to keep youth curious, and to use that curiosity to lure them forward into growth. Keeping healthy secrets from children also prevented creating the teen we all fear: the one who knows everything!!

Modern kids are inundated with information. Indeed, this is called the Information Age. They acquire an understanding early in life of marriage and divorce, pre-marital sex, drugs, porn, politics and more. While these are not inherently negative topics, they are not important for young people to know and sadly we Americans do not model the best of each topic: America leads the world in divorce rate, incarceration, teen violence and a host of other dubious distinctions. 85% of all sex portrayed on TV is to unmarried couples, teaching that pre-marital sex is all right and that marriage is not sexy. How do I expect my daughter to 'wait until she's married' when every book and movie she sees offers the opposite?

Each year the schools struggle more and more with engaging kids in class. Each year I see less understanding of how our culture works from teens who have turned off their curiosity because they've "seen it all." For example, none of the African-American boys in either of my current process groups know what the Emancipation Proclamation was about, when it happened, or how it affected them. Their understanding of Black progress begins with Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement. They have been so bored and uninvolved in school they've failed to learn this and other critical pieces of their heritage. But they know everything about drugs, gangs and sex".

Back in the days of Leave it to Beaver, Father Knows Best and My Three Sons, kids did not have much inkling of how the adult world worked. Adult behavior was withheld from them and youth were safely naïve. If you think about much of teen behavior, it is an attempt to act as an adult. Teens today are in too much of a hurry to grow up, and we as a culture seem to believe that we should expose them to all aspects of adult life and expedite that growth. We're only teens for a few years and then adults for decades. We can't totally blame teens for knowing too much when we hand it to them on a platter. If you're tired of kids who know everything, keep 'em in the dark a bit longer; it won't kill them.
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Bret Stephenson is an adolescent specialist who\'s experiences with teens from more than 100 countries and six international youth conferences has altered how he looks at and works with American teens. Utilizing archetypal, (more...)
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