Do Suburbs Create Teen Rage?

The suburbs are the symbol of the American dream, the places where six of 10 people in this country live and play. The tile roofs, cul-de-sacs, and big homes of suburbs such as Thousand Oaks, Calif., are supposed to insulate people from the problems of the big city life.

But increasingly, it appears that insulation leads to isolation, creating problems of its own.

"There's nothing to do out here," says 16-year-old Stephanie Tenan.

"Basically, it's boring," says another suburban teen, Mike Dubrow.

While that could be taken as a typical teen-age lament, child psychologists say it is a symptom of a deeper problem. They suggest that the design of suburban life has made young people feel left out, ignored, and alienated.

The theory is getting new attention in the aftermath of the April 20 shooting at Colorado's Columbine High School, as people look for the answer as to why two teen-age boys who seemed to have it all threw it all away, taking their own lives and the lives of 13 others in the process.

Dr. Brian Brody has been warning about the hidden dangers in the suburbs for a decade. His office in Littleton, Colo., looks out onto Columbine High. He believes the lack of outlets for teen-age energy, coupled with the lack of supervision by too busy adults, is a bad combination.

"I think in the suburbs we have tried to give our children everything," Dr. Brody says. "We've moved further away from the cities trying to get bigger houses, more material things - a safer environment for our kids. And I think parents are running themselves ragged."

Teen-agers too young to drive feel trapped. What they want are places to gather, to call their own - somewhere other than the mall or school.

Sherryl Majors knows that all too well. Outside Atlanta, Ga., she found good schools, a safe environment, but too little to do for herself and especially her teen-agers.

"They became depressed - they were isolated, and basically surrounded by their loneliness," Majors says.

Architecture just might be the cure. There's a movement by architects calling themselves the New Urbanists to build a better future by taking lessons from the past. New suburbs with narrower streets, front porches, a sense of community.

"Oh gosh, living in this development has just been fabulous for us," says Watson Russell.

Watson and his wife, Debbie, live in a "new urban" community still under construction near Portland, Ore. It will have a town center, abundant parks, and easy access to transportation.

"I've noticed a great sense of satisfaction in the sense they feel they belong to a special kind of community," says Watson.

"They're going to have swimming pools and basketball courts, so if we get bored or mad a little bit, or there's something bothering us, we can go over there and do whatever we want to do," says 11-year-old Kevin Russell.

But neighborhoods like this remain the exception, an that worries Dr. Brody, who has seen the effects firsthand as he counsels the children of Columbine.

"If it's all structure and buildings without the connection and the teaching kids of self-discipline and the coping skills they need - without that, this all crumbles. The great suburban dream has been shattered," Brody says.

According to a recent Gallup Poll, 46 percent of suburban teen-agers say they could see a fellow teen turning violent. Just 29 percent of city teens say the same.

Reported By John Roberts