Teenagers: Our Last Great Hope?

In every generation teenagers have gotten a bad rap.

All those hormones at a time when life can be pretty conflicting on its own lead to some bizarre and occasionally offensive behaviors. The recent RNC protests, which I followed closely, are a prime example of young people attempting to create change, or simply awareness, and often going about it badly.

The old aphorism – that a few bad apples spoil the barrel – is true. Of course, apples don’t come in barrels anymore, but pick an apple off a supermarket shelf, bite into it at home and come away with a mouthful of worms and you will likely forgo apples for a while, even though 99 percent are worm-free. The same applies to teenagers. Of course, you’re not allowed to bite the teens or put them in barrels (sigh).

On the other hand, allowing a bad apple or a bad teen to influence our choices or attitudes is also unwise. Take, for example, Kate Stoeckle and Louisa Strauss. These two young women, students at New York’s Trinity School, a prestigious and private co-educational prep school, are examples of just how clever, creative and effective teens can be. Of course, the pair clearly have the added advantages of good education and (presumably) financial stability, but this should in no way detract from their accomplishment.

Their feat? Using DNA barcoding, which reads a short segment of mitochondrial DNA, the pair identified fish sold in the city’s restaurants and grocery stores as counterfeit.

The most surprising case uncovered by the fishy detectives showed that Acadian redfish (a superbly tasty species endangered by overfishing) is being sold as red snapper. Red snapper costs about $10 a pound or more. The endangered redfish shouldn’t even be showing up on grocery shelves.

Other bait and switch offerings included tilapia being sold as white tuna, and goatfish – with whiskers similar to catfish – being sold as Mediterranean red mullet. The latter two are both of the same species (Mullidae), but the former is definitely inferior in flavor because it, like catfish, is a bottom-feeder.

Last year, A Christchurch teenager discovered multiple, antibiotic-resistant bacteria in chicken being sold in supermarkets in her native New Zealand.

Jane Millar’s science project could affect the kinds of antibiotics used to treat human disease. This kind of groundbreaking science, by a 17-year-old, highlights the importance of taking serious teenagers seriously, and has led to calls for further investigation of the role of antibiotics in disease resistance. Millar’s discovery was published in the New Zealand Institute’s science journal.

More recently, a Canadian teen has discovered a novel way to biodegrade plastic bags. Working in his kitchen on a budget of less than $100, Daniel Burd did what no scientist or manufacturer to date has managed to do; break down those ubiquitous grocery bags into little more than water, carbon dioxide and heat.

And less than a month ago, a Kenyan teen has cobbled together an auto anti-theft device that works off a standard cellphone. Chances are that Morris Mbetsa, who has made OnStar expensively redundant, was working from a similar $100-dollar budget.

I could go on, but you get the picture (if you don’t, just Google the words, “teenager invents” or "discovers." Teenagers have a reputation for being noisy, messy, inexplicably moody, frequently secretive, and often rebellious, but they are also amazingly intelligent, technologically savvy and innovative, and I think we need to focus on that; a challenge I frequently issue to other adults, whose most common response is, "So what? Those teens are just the exception to the rule."

When it comes to teens there is no rule. And the examples that I cite are just the teens that made it to the front page or the Internet. A thousand examples of good consumerism, good sense, charity and social advocacy by teens remain unheralded.

Today’s teenagers are tomorrow’s problem solvers, and the environmental, energy, and social justice challenges they face are greater than those presented to any single generation in living memory. Disappointment, especially when directed at the young, tends to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Let’s not hamstring them with our preconceptions before they have had a chance to run with their ideas. It’s not like we adults have done such a great job ourselves.

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