Friday, June 17, 2011
It's An Adolescent's World
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), "One in every five people in the world is an adolescent, and 85% of them live in developing countries" (WHO.int). That means that the complexion and populations will be shifting (in numbers) away from dominant European and North American superpowers of the 19th and 20th century toward "developing countries". For anyone who doesn't know, developing countries is a politically correct way of say third-world counties. A large part of what drove the "Arab Spring" into effect, particularly in Egypt, was the large groups of educated and impoverished young people who could not find quality work to live.
It was not a complete surprise that this would happen. According to the NY Times, with the intervention of global media, starting with Al Jazeera, kids were exposed to alternate (and sometimes Western) cultures which made them crave freedom and access to information, two things which political despots and regimes do not value for their people. "It was long anticipated that young people would emerge as a powerful force because the median age across the Middle East is just 26. But what surprised many was the absence of religious discourse — and the embrace of pluralism — from a generation that is more observant than its parents and often seeks solace from despotic rulers and blighted lives in an embrace of Islam."This might be indicative of the choice of social media such as Facebook and Twitter, the medium of young people, as a means of organizing and information sharing in the moment of peaceful revolution.
The desire to break from the traditions of their parents and carve out their own way in life is a natural part of the adolescent psychological experience, it just so happens that this is playing out on the world stage. But, not unlike adolescent behavior on an individual level, the sociological evidence of a whole generation of adolescent's coming of age in unstable regions of the world bring their own health risks to bear, starting with teen pregnancy.
The WHO reports that "About 16 million girls aged 15 to 19 years give birth every year - roughly 11% of all births worldwide." So, not only will be have a generation of young people who are eager to express their individual freedoms and try out their new sense of identity, they are also reproducing at a high rate, participating in high-risk behavior. I should note that nearly all of those teen's getting pregnant are in either African or Southeastern Asian countries. These countries also have a high infant mortality rate, up to 5X higher than in developed countries. The WHO reports that 8.1 children (under the age of 5) died in 2009 - a rate of 60 deaths per 1,000 live births.
Along with unprotected sex which can lead to unwanted teen pregnancy, there is also a higher than average rate of contracting AIDS in the global teen community.
The WHO estimates that 2,500 people between the ages of 15 and 24 contract HIV every day.
The WHO also reports that, "15 to 24-year-olds accounted for an estimated 40% of all new HIV infections among adults worldwide in 2008." That is a staggering statistic, and it is not clear that we have the resources to treat that many new HIV infections or to educate the total number of young people about how to be safe with their bodies.
The WHO statistic that I personally find most troubling is the rate of tobacco use in adolescents. While research has shown that most people who start smoking and become regular or lifelong smokers begin in their teens, there has been the notion in Western culture that we have been winning the war against tobacco. That may be the case, as rates of tobacco consumption lessen, but in the developing world, teens are still "lighting up" at an alarming rate. The WHO estimates that "150 million people use tobacco." Again, many of these young people who are smoking are in developing countries which do not have the stringent bans on tobacco distribution and advertising in place to keep teens from seeing smoking as a cool thing to do. According to the WHO Framework Initiative On Tobacco:
Only 26 countries, representing 8.8% of the world’s population, have comprehensive national bans on tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship. That means that 92.2% of the world is living in an environment which does not have a Surgeon General's warning about smoking, cigarette sponsorship of activities and products is not fully sanctioned or that there is a print advertising ban on cigarettes like there has been in the United States for more than 10 years.
Finally, suicide and interpersonal violence are the leading cause of death with young people worldwide. In typical adolescent fashion, teens are anxious, dramatic and spontaneous. Suicide is the leading cause of death for adolescents globally, with an estimated 20% of the global teen population facing some form of mental illness in their lifetime. Ranging from mild to severe, that is 1/5 of the upcoming global population facing a troubling internal reality, and there may not be adequate resources to treat their issues. The WHO reports that "an estimated 565 young people aged 10 to 29 years die every day through interpersonal violence." Over 550 teens die every day, because they do not have the adequate skills to solve resolution through alternative means. The WHO is quick to point out that a margin of the interpersonal violence is within the home and not strictly at the community level, but that does not make it sound that much better, really.
Global teen population, just like the time in which I came of age will face a myriad of problems and possibilities. Just like kids in my generation, some of them will not make it and will fall to the way side through the means which have been discussed above. That also means that some teens will make it, and that they will navigate the dangers and difficulties of adolescence and come through the experience better off for it.
These will be our next generation of world leaders, God-willing. As unrest settles through the Arab world, and regimes are toppled by young people, connected by social media and a desire to be free, we can only hope that their resilience and passion will continue to spread to the further corners of the world, bringing their light and levity into the darkest of spaces.