Violent video games and Internet porn; cyber-bullies and online predators; school shootings and teen gangs. The image of today's teenagers often seems to be that of a tech-crazed generation run amok – either committing acts of unfathomable brutality, like Columbine or Red Lake, or else, falling victim to malevolent adults via the same technology teens themselves have so widely embraced.
But how widespread are these dangers really? Are America's teens more likely to be the victims – or perpetrators – of crime today than in the past? How worried should parents be about what their kids are doing on the Internet?
The surprising answer is that while they remain vulnerable to a host of threats online and off, teens are actually safer today than they've been in years.
"Teenagers are safer today, absolutely," says University of California-Berkeley law professor Frank Zimring.
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While preliminary figures just released by the FBI show a rise in most categories of violent crime in the U.S. in 2005, there have been dramatic declines overall since the bad old days of the early 1990s, including a huge drop in teen crime and teen violence. (The FBI has not yet released 2005 crime data by age group.)
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, there were 49.7 victims of violent crime (homicide, rape, robbery and aggravated assault) for every 1,000 12-to-15-year-olds in 2004, compared with a high of 118.6 in 1994. There was a similar drop of more than 50 percent among 16-to-19-year-olds.
"Serious crime in general is down," says Zimring, author of "American Youth Violence" and the forthcoming "Great American Crime Decline." "Burglary, robbery, auto theft, across the spectrum, the things we used to worry about, have gone down and down substantially."
Even the nation's schools have gotten safer, despite the media focus on a wave of horrific school shootings. Violent crime rates in public and private schools are about half what they were in 1992, according to "Indicators of School Crime and Safety," a report from the U.S. Justice and Education Departments.
While many criminologists cite the demise of the crack cocaine plague in U.S. cities as the primary cause of the decreased juvenile crime rate, Zimring says that's just part of the story. He says the same factors that contributed to an overall drop in U.S. crime since the 1990s are responsible for the drop in youth crime. These include a high imprisonment rate, a strong economy and expanded opportunity for young people, and demographic shifts that saw the highest risk age group, young people ages 15-29, decrease as a percentage of the U.S. population.
"The big story why crime dropped among kids is the same as why crime dropped among all age groups," Zimring says.
None of this is to downplay the serious risks teens face. They remain more likely than any other age group to be the victims of violent crime. And they're especially vulnerable to online threats ranging from sexual solicitation to identity theft.
Most alarming is how frequently teens are targeted by sexual predators. Almost one in five young Internet users will receive an unwanted sexual solicitation, according to the U.S. Department of Justice; nearly half the time, the harasser is another teen. One in 33 teens will receive an aggressive invitation to meet the solicitor.