Now that we’re in the midst of graduation season, it’s a good time to reflect on our own experiences as students. As this column has previously stated, there are a lot of traits in teenage behaviors that have remained the same over the decades. Society, however, has undergone profound change, particularly over the last 20 years.
Some changes have no doubt been beneficial to the health and security of young people. Take, for example, the requirement that school bus drivers must be at least 18 years old in North Carolina, with at least six months of driving experience. For decades, high school students were allowed to drive buses and were, in fact, the only ones who drove school buses.
According to the June 1988 edition of North Carolina Insight, then a quarterly publication of the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research, five states at that time allowed either 16-year-olds or 17-year-olds to operate school buses. That list included North Carolina, which in 1988 was on the verge of requiring 18-year-old drivers, joining 45 states with adult school bus drivers. Ten of those states required drivers to be 21.
The article indicates that employing teenage students to drive school buses originated during World War II, when adult drivers were unavailable. Despite the seeming absurdity of students as bus drivers, especially when viewed against today’s standards, the article lists data indicating that employing high school students as bus drivers was actually a safe practice.
Another jaw-dropping fact from decades ago is that, at least in the rural school system where I grew up, teenagers had designated smoking areas on high school campuses. If memory serves me, a student only needed written permission from parents to smoke at school. That is almost beyond belief—teenagers could smoke cigarettes on a school campus as late as the 1970s and even into the ‘80s.
Given what we know now about cigarette smoking, that is as radical as it gets. We actually knew a lot at the time about the harmful effects of smoking, making it as hard to believe from that era as it is now. As a lifelong non-smoker who abhors the habit, I don’t recall if there was a minimum age at which a high school student could light up. For example, could 14-year-old freshmen smoke? Only a couple of my buddies were smokers, so the details escape me.
Thankfully, we’re much more informed today, proving again that change is often a good thing. It’s reassuring to know that school systems are now proactive in preventing vaping, the smoking of electronic cigarettes, on campuses.
When we stop to consider today’s high school students, the advent of cell phones is the defining change that has occurred during their lifetimes. The current crop of high schoolers may actually be the first group in possession of cell phones practically their entire lives, some from as early as kindergarten.
A lot of data exists that demonstrates the harmful effects of cell phones, physically as well as psychologically, on all of us, not just teenagers. (Google “harmful effects of cell phones.”) Will cell phones ever rival cigarettes for the detrimental impact on society? It’s certainly not a baseless question, although the harm from cell phones may prove to be more psychological than physical. Many who deal regularly with teenagers, as teachers do, will tell you without equivocation that cell phones have eroded the attention spans and levels of impulse control found in young people.
This leads to a larger consideration of the societal changes over recent decades, particularly the development of technology and the internet. Teenagers today have a vast amount of information at their fingertips. That produces the ultimate double-edged sword. It’s good that we have access to information quickly and easily, so long as we have internet service. It’s bad when quick and easy replaces thoughtful and resourceful, when intellectual rigor is replaced by the simple and shallow. Therein lies the biggest challenge with teenagers in the classroom, as students regularly pluck what I call the low-hanging fruit of internet research rather than deeply considering and exploring a topic.
There are many other ways we’ve witnessed changes in society over the decades. Notable is the proliferation of youth sports teams. We’ve become a society obsessed with youth sports, producing a year-round pursuit for many, particularly those involved with basketball, baseball and softball. Even football, a strictly seasonal sport, often requires 10-12 months of dedication annually, with camps, workouts, and drills required for success.
So, my advice to young people about to enter the realm of adulthood? Put down the cell phone, don’t smoke, count your blessings, understand that technology can be either an asset or a liability, and appreciate a little down time before heading to college, the workplace, or the military. Life moves on, technology advances, and very little in society remains the same, in ways both good and bad. Most of all, understand that the world you enter will be vastly different from the one your children will someday enter.
Larry Cothren is a former newspaper and magazine editor who currently teaches marketing at the high school level.