At first glance, Hardwired to Connect, the recent report from the Commission on Children at Risk, a group of thirty-three children's doctors, research scientists, and youth services professionals, might be viewed as yet another harbinger of social decay. The report, jointly sponsored by the Dartmouth Medical School, the YMCA, and the Institute for American Values, documents dramatic declines in the welfare of adolescents over the last half century--to the point where approximately 20 percent of all adolescents suffer from serious emotional or behavioral problems, from depression to delinquency.
Take suicide. From 1955 to 1990, the suicide rate for adolescents aged fifteen to nineteen more than quadrupled from 2.7 per 100,000 to 11.1 per 100,000. Moreover, larger numbers of adolescents now report considering suicide--in fact, by 2001, almost 20 percent of high school students had entertained such thoughts.
As the report suggests, suicide trends are important for two reasons. First, suicide is a dramatic and obvious indicator of a lack of psychological well-being among teens. These suicide trends reflect the marked decline in psychological well-being adolescents have experienced over the last half century. Since the 1960s, depression, anxiety, drug abuse, and delinquency have all risen precipitously among teenagers.
Second, as Emile Durkheim observed over a century ago, suicide is an excellent barometer of the overall health of our social life. When adolescents are integrated into what this report describes as "authoritative communities"--religious institutions, intact families, and other civic institutions serving children (such as the YMCA)--they think life is worth living. These communities provide them with a sense of belonging and with moral and spiritual meaning that lends their lives purpose and hope. When adolescents have no ties, or only attenuated ties, to authoritative communities, they lose hope and become vulnerable to a range of social and psychological pathologies, including suicide.
So, how have authoritative communities fared in recent years in the United States? The sobering reality is that authoritative communities have not done so well over the last half-century. The family, which the report correctly notes is "the first and most basic association of civil society," has been battered and buffeted in recent years. In particular, increases in divorce and unwed childbearing since the 1960s have left an indelible mark on the...