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Adolescents and Society

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Child and Adolescent Studies

BA (Hons.)


Thesis Statement
Societal Factors
What is Social Change
Poverty and Unemployment
Globalization and De-industrialization
Technology and the Media
Changes in Family Structure
Adolescent Development
Erik Erickson and Psycho-social Development Theory
Coleman’s Focal Model
Impact of Societal Factors on Adolescent Development


Society Adolescence StudySocietal change can have a powerful influence on human development. This is specifically true in regards to development during the adolescent years. Social issues can effect adolescent development often, in a negative manner. When these factors negatively influence adolescent development, an adolescent may develop risk behaviors and emotional problems that severely affect their psychosocial development. Adolescents are vulnerable to the negative effects of social change and it is the responsibility of professionals in the fields of Psychology, Social Work and Education, to provide prevention and intervention services to the developing adolescent.

Crockett and Silbereisen (2000) declare, “Like other phases of the life span, adolescence is shaped by the socio-cultural context in which it occurs.” This “socio-cultural context” includes family, economic, political, educational and religious contexts. This paper will look at some specific socio-cultural contexts and societal changes that can negatively affect adolescent development. These will include poverty and unemployment, globalization and de-industrialization, technology and the media, and changes in family structure and the educational system. The main thesis for this paper is that recent societal changes have had a negative impact on adolescent development, causing many adolescent to develop risk behaviors including, depression, suicide, self-mutilation, eating disorders, adolescent pregnancy, and truancy from school, and violence.

Societal Factors

According to Crockett and Sibereisen (2000), societal change can occur on many different levels. At the national and international levels, social change effect adolescent development by either increasing or decreasing the types of educational and economic opportunities for adolescents as they enter adulthood. Crockett and Silbereisen (2000) states that, at the individual level adolescent development is affected by social change by factors such as the changing structure of families in the Western world, the influence of the media and the internet, and the influence of peer pressure on an adolescents social and emotional development.

How social change affects adolescent development has changed greatly in the last fifty years. With increased globalization, increased reliance on technology rather than industry, and the increased infiltration of the media into all aspects of society, the impact of social change has only increased and become more complex. According to Furlong and Carmel (1997) “ as a consequence of these changes, young people today have to negotiate a series of risks which were largely unknown to their parents, this is true, irrespective of social background or gender” (Furlong and Cartmel, 1997, 1). This increased complexity surrounding social change has led to increased risk for adolescents during a very sensitive stage of human development in which adolescents are beginning to develop their own sense of identity and individual norms and values.

Factors such as social class, race, gender and education determine the level of impact that social change will have on development. Banks (1992) likens these differences to trains in the London Underground. This basically means that an adolescent from a poor or working class background, or a child from a minority group may have to take a circuitous route to attaining their goals, stopping every so often to change trains whereas; an adolescent from the racial majority, or from and upper class background will be able to afford an express ticket to reach their goal. This essentially means that a poor or minority adolescent may have to work harder and longer to obtain educational goals because they will have to finance their own advancement whereas upper class, non minority students have the wherewithal to cover the costs of educational and career advancement without struggle.

Poverty and Unemployment

Crockett and Silbereisen (2000) state that economic and social disadvantage can have positive and negative effects on adolescent development. Adolescents who grow up poor, who must work from an early age to support themselves and their families are much more socially, and economically independent than more advantaged peers. Adolescents who come from poor backgrounds are less likely to have difficulty deciding upon a career path as well.

However, Crockett and Silbereisen (2000) do point out that poverty and unemployment have their negative aspects as well. Poor families experience higher levels of stress than wealthier families, therefore family life is much more stressful for the disadvantaged adolescent than for the advantaged adolescent. This can cause problems with risk behaviors such as, adolescent pregnancy, substance abuse, and truancy and violence. Male adolescents often have fewer problems than female adolescents do, as females are more likely to marry while still in adolescence and to participate at lower levels of the work force than disadvantaged males.

Crockett and Silbereisen (2000) state that, there are several factors that decrease the negative effects of poverty and unemployment. Adult support and encouragement play a powerful role in helping disadvantaged adolescents to avoid risk behaviors. Helping them to set career goals, and use social change factors to their advantage also has an impact on how they experience normal adolescent transitions in the face of social change. No matter how much support these adolescents receive however, they cannot avoid the poverty and unemployment that has been created by an increasingly global and de-industrialized society. This is specifically true in countries such as the United Kingdom where the manufacturing base that once employed the working classes has been outsourced to Southeast Asian nations such as Taiwan, and replaced with increasingly technological positions requiring advanced education that disadvantaged adolescents must struggle to obtain.

Globalization and De-industrialization

According to Petersen (2000), in order for an adolescent to successfully navigate adolescence in a world of globalization and de-industrialization an adolescent must have four specific personality characteristics. An adolescent must be skilled in the use of current technology such as, computers, the internet, and cell phones. This is because in an increasingly global society, the international economy and hence and adolescents future career opportunities are highly dependent on knowledge of new technology. An adolescent must be motivated to continue learning throughout their lives, and come to realize that learning does not cease merely because one has left school. An acceptance of people from diverse, social and cultural backgrounds is also necessary since, unlike their parent’s generation they will live and work with people from many nations. Finally, and adolescent must learn to be comfortable with a changing global society and a changing global economy. (Petersen, 2000, 294)

Petersen (2000) states that, one of the major changes for adolescents growing up in a more global society are that an increasing variety of service related jobs have become available which has only worked to increase the availability of jobs in the youth employment sector. However, some have debated whether this is a healthy change since in many Western countries adolescents and young adults are relegated to these jobs if they do not have the financial wherewithal to continue their educations in order to obtain jobs in the tech industry. In the United Kingdom and the United States, primarily due to the forces of globalization and de-industrialization these service sector jobs are often the only jobs remaining for low-skilled and un-skilled workers in both the adolescent years and continuing on into the adult years. Globalization has also changed adolescent development in that adolescents are exposed to a much wider variety of technology and media than they have been in the past.

Technology and the Media

As the use of technology amongst adolescent, as well as their exposure to media from a wide variety of sources the course of adolescent development has changed. Exposure to new technology such as, the internet has led adolescent's to become more isolated from their peers on the local level while simultaneously building friendships with other adolescents at the international level through internet blogs such as, My Space, Live Journal, and Face Book. Exposure to overtly sexual media influences in films, books, magazines, television shows, and video games has led to many adolescents throughout the Western world becoming sexualized and sexually active at an earlier age.

According to Subrahmanyam, and Lin (2007), the internet is a hazardous place for adolescents. Although adolescents are able to access educational information, and to connect with their peers on the internet, they are also exposed to a wide variety of negative influences ranging from sexually explicit pornography, and violent online video games to child molesters who lurk on websites and in chat room waiting for vulnerable teens to fall victim to their lures. According to Subramanyam and Lin (2007), many adolescents, already feeling socially awkward and isolated because of the changes due adolescence will isolate themselves by spending large amounts of time on the computer. The more powerful influence of the media during the last twenty years has also had a powerful impact on adolescent development.

The influence of the media on adolescent development has primarily been a negative one. Adolescents, especially in the Western world, are exposed to constant sexual image and wording coming at them from every media outlet. On the small and the large screens, adolescents see men and women, not much older than they are using overtly sexual language and participating in overtly sexual acts. Hawk, et al (2006) states that, “exposure to sexual content in the media has mainly been treated as a predictor of adolescent's sexual attitudes and behaviors” (Hawk et al, 2006, 353). Hawk et al (2006) further states that, over exposure to sexual images in the media have led to adolescents becoming sexually active as early as the age of 12, or 13.

This over exposure to sexual images and sexuality in the media, and the social isolation created by too much time spent on the internet has led to increased rates of adolescent pregnancy, and increased rates of sexually transmitted diseases, eating disorders and other adolescent problems. The simple fact of the matter is that used properly both technologies such as the internet, and the various media outlets can be helpful in promoting healthy adolescent development. One such example of technology and the media being used to promote positive adolescent development would be the increasing acceptance of homosexual teens Western societies such as in the United Kingdom and the United States. Teens must be taught by educators and parents to discern the differences between healthy uses of technology and positive media influences, and the more negative aspects of these influences.

Changes in Family Structure

Changes in the structure of families in Western countries, works have also led to changes in adolescent development. Changes in family structure in Western nations such as the United Kingdom have included high divorce rates, single parenting, blended families, and gay and lesbian families. How people think of family has changed and therefore, so has the role of the family in promoting healthy adolescent development. Another regarding the changing family structure and adolescent development is that fact that adolescents are no longer as close to grandparents and other extended family as they once were. In many cases, the influence of the older generation on adolescent development has been relegated to a once yearly visit over the holidays and contact over the telephone and through the mail.

Prugiit and de Goede (1997) declare that, children who have experienced changes in the structure of their family are less likely to be physically and psychologically healthy than adolescents who have not experienced any change whatsoever. In data gathered from the Utrecht Study of Adolescent Development, a longtitudinal study of adolescents and social changes that began in the 1990's, Sprugiit and de Goede (1997) found that, adolescents who had experienced one, or more changes in the structure of their family were more likely to experience physical health problems such as eating disorders, obesity, and frequent illness, as well as psychological problems such as depression, self mutilation, and suicide. These results indicate that changes in the family can have an impact on adolescent development.

Adolescent Development

In order to understand how social change impacts adolescent development, one must first seek to understand normal adolescent development from a psychosocial perspective. Two of the foremost theorists in the field of psychosocial development are John C. Coleman and Erik Erickson. Both theorists are well known for their work in the field of human development and how society and culture effect this development. Normal in the case of the paper is defined as the course of psychosocial development for the typically developing adolescent rather than adolescents who may have specific issues such as, terminal illness to contend with.

Erik Erickson and Psychosocial Development

Erik Erickson's Theory of Psychosocial Development is one of commonly referred to theories in the field of Developmental Psychology. Three stages of Erickson's theory specifically address the changes that are experienced during the adolescent years. The first stage is that of Industry vs. Inferiority, which occurs roughly between the ages of 8-14. In this stage a person is learning how to get along with others, how to work within the structure of rules, and mastering basic academic knowledge. According to Erickson (1994) successful completion of this stage will lead to a child who is capable of following the rules, and getting along with others, two characteristic that are vital to a person's ability to function within the limits of societal norms and values. The second stage that applies to adolescent development is that of Identity vs. Identity Diffusion. In this stage, the adolescent is busy exploring their identity. They learn who they are, and what they want out of life. Successful navigation of this stage will create an adolescent who actively participates in their own growth and development rather than failing to develop a sense of and remaining stagnant. The final stage that applies to the adolescent years is that of Intimacy Versus Isolation. In this stage, the adolescent/young adult takes what they learned about relationships during the Industry vs. Inferiority stage, and uses that knowledge to develop long lasting adult relationships including, intimate relationships with and adult partner. Erickson's theory has been criticized for its failure to address non-social aspects of adolescence however it remains one of the most utilized theories of adolescent development.

John Coleman and the Focal Model of Adolescent Development

Coleman and Hendry (1997) have developed what they term the Focal Model of Adolescent Development. This model posits that adolescents must deal with several different issues as they grow and develop. Colman and Hendry (1997) propose that, rather than dealing with these issues simultaneously as Erickson proposed, adolescents deal with issues such as relationships, social changes such as, changes in family structure, career, and education, separately during different periods of their adolescent years. For instance, many adolescents begin dealing with career choices between the ages of 15 and 18 as prior to leaving secondary school. This spreads the stress created by dealing with these issues over the entire course of adolescent development rather than concentrating it during a specific stage of adolescent development. This model in particular may be used to explain why so many adolescents have trouble dealing with social change in that they are

used to dealing with one issue as a time, and social changes may force them to deal with several problems all at once causing them to develop risk behaviors such as, depression, or substance abuse.

Impact of Social Change on Adolescents

Bynner (2000) states that, social change can create a shift in how and when and adolescent experiences developmental transitions. For instance changes in the economy resulting from globalization have led to a situation whereby many adolescents have had to take increasing responsibility for family, and have lived with family later and longer than adolescent have traditionally lived with their family. This can be seen in Vanessa (Case Study 2) who despite being 18 already lives at home with her father and stepmother and has a great deal of responsibility for her younger siblings, to the point where it is beginning to interfere with her educational and career goals. .

Another way in which social change seems to affect adolescent development is in the fact that it can have a strong influence on the development of health problems and risk factors that can throw adolescent development severely off course. According to Furlong and Cartmel (1997) “ the protraction of the school to work transition, changes in domestic and housing transitions, as well as the commercialization of leisure and lifestyles have all led to new forms of risk and vulnerability.” (Cartmel and Furlong, 1997, 65) These forms of risk and vulnerability can cause problems with substance abuse, eating disorders, adolescent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, and violence.

On example of the negative effect of social change is the example of Jasmine, (Case Study1) an adolescent girl whose troubles with her blended family led to several incidences of running away, becoming truant towards school, and physically and emotionally violent arguments with her stepfather. Jasmine's problems with the social changes created by changes in the structure of her family have led to a situation where Social Services has taken control of her life, and she has spent much of her adolescence in and out of foster homes.


The impact of social changes on adolescence should not be underestimated. Not when rising rates of adolescent substance abuse, STD's, pregnancy, depression, suicide, violent crimes, and eating disorders are making it rather clear that adolescents in the United Kingdom and other Western nations are in troubles. The examples set by Jasmine and Vanessa and how many things have gone wrong in their lives because of social changes demonstrate that support and intervention is needed to make social change less influential in the lives of adolescents. Factors such as, globalization, unemployment, changes in family structure, and technology and the media have created problems for adolescents that cannot be simply or easily resolved. In conclusion, is has become clear that social change is correlated with risk behaviors and health problems in adolescence, and the problems will only increase if the adults responsible for ensuring the smooth flow of adolescent development continue to fail these young people.

Works Cited

Banks, M, Bates, I, Breakwell, G, Bynner, J, Emler, N, Jamieson, L and Roberts K (1992). Careers and identities. Buckingham: Open University Press

Bynner, John. Social change and the sequencing of developmental transitions in: Negotiating adolescence in times of social change. Cambridge, U.K: Cambridge University Press, p 89-121

Coleman, John, B and Hendry, Leo (1997). The Nature of Adolescence. (2nd Ed) London: Routledge Press

Crockett, Lisa, J and Silbereisen, Rainer, K (2000). Negotiating adolescence in times of social change. Cambridge, U.K: Cambridge University Press, p294-312

Erickson, Erik (1994). Identity and the Life Cycle. New York, New York: W.W. Norton Inc

Furlong, Andy, and Cartmel, Fred (1997, 2007) Young people and social change: Individualization and risk in modernity. Buckingham: Open University Press

Hawk, Skyler, Vanweseenbeck, Ine, de Graaf, Hanneke, and Bakker, Floor. (November 2006) “Adolescents contact with sexuality in the mainstream media: A selection based perspective.” The Journal of Sex Research 43 (4), 353-363

Petersen, Anne, C (2000). Adolescents in the 21st century: Preparing for an uncertain future in Furlong, Andy, and Carmel, Fred (1997, 2007) Young people and social change: Individualization and risk in modernity. Buckingham: Open University Press

Sprugiit, Ed, and de Goede, Martin (1997). “Transitions in family structure and adolescent well-being” Adolescence, 32(128), 896-913

Subrahmanyam, Kaveri, and Gloria Lin. (winter, 2007) "Adolescents on the net: internet use and well-being. (Survey). ." Adolescence. 42. (168): p659-681.

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