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Kids and the bomb: apocalyptic anxieties?

A 15-year-old girl sits with her parents and brother and impassively endures the questions of psychologist Steve Zeitlin, who wants to know if the nuclear arms race has affected their lives or expectations for the future. "Politics don't really interest me," she says. "My friends and I live for today."

Four months later, Zeitlin, of Newton, Mass., shows the family a videotape of the session. After mulling over her previous remarks, the girl tells him that he feelings have changed; the threat of nuclear war has hit her. "I have a job, but sometimes I feel like there's no point in working for things because of all the taxes," she says. "It's like paying for your own suicide."

In Zeitlin's opinion, the girl presented an apathetic front to protect her parents from her anxieties, but the facade broke down when the family jointly discussed nuclear war.

Another family-related facade is presented by a teenage boy interviewed by psychiatrist Robert Coles of Harvard University. The boy describes his fears of a nuclear war to Coles, but later, within earshot of a teacher, he laughs and tells his best friend that he convinced the researcher "the world is coming to an end." The ruse was successful, he explains, because Coles is like many of his parents' friends; and, the boy says, "if you cry, they cry."

Figuring out what young people are feeling about even the most mundane matters has brought countless adults close to tears. But as these two examples illustrate, getting to the core of youngsters' reactions to a complex issue such as the nuclear arms race is an even trickier business.

Some researchers argue that recent surveys suggesting that nuclear concerns are widespread among teenagers are just as tricky to figure out. The data, they say, are open to interpretation, do not tap inner fears or anxieties and in some cases have been inspired more by politics than by science.

Investigators who conducted the surveys admit that the findings are flawed, but say the evidence still points to considerable concern about nuclear war among adolescents.

Perhaps the most cited work is that of psychologist Jerald G. Bachman and his colleagues at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. In a national survey of 17,000 high school seniors conducted annually over the past decade, they find that the percentage of students who say they worry often about nuclear war rose from 7 percent in 1975 to 30 percent in 1980 and has remained at about that level through 1984. Yet, cautions Bachman, the meaning of these responses is far from clear.

"It's hard to go from these [surveys] to knowing how hopeless one feels about the world," he told SCIENCE NEWS. "Reports of nuclear concerns have increased gradually, but we don't claim that this has turned young people's lives around." For example, he points out that while drug and alcohol use is still substantial among seniors, it has gone down slightly in recent years and does not appear to be related to reported levels of nuclear concern. Most young people, adds Bachman, are optimistic about their personal goals. They expect to get married, have children and advance in job prestige and income.

Furthermore, about two-thirds of the seniors agree with the statement "The human race has come through tough times before and will do so again."

A similar pattern of responses was collected in a 1983 survey of 1,500 high school students initiated by the National Association of Secondary School Principals in Reston, Va. Just over half the national sample named nuclear disaster or the threat of World War III as the most important world problem. Again, however, most of the students said they plan to marry, raise children and carve out successful careers.

Although the teenagers emphasized the thread of nuclear war as a major problem, 53 percent either midly or strongly agreed that "nuclear weapons are necessary to protect the U.S." In addition, 47 percent of the sample said drugs are the worst influence on young people today, compared with just over 3 percent who awarded that distinction to the threat of war.

Into this stew of survey data add a 1985 Gallup telephone poll of 1,100 tennagers in the United States and England. About half of the young people in both countries said it is likely there will be a nuclear war someday.

A number of researchers have focused more exclusively on nuclear concerns and fears than have the national pollsters. They have come up with what they say is more concrete evidence that preoccupations with nuclear war have profoundly affected a significant number of teenagers.

From 1978 through 1980, psychiatrists John Mack and William Beardslee of Harvard surveyed 1,151 high school students in Baltimore, Boston and Los Angeles. They concluded that "thoughts of nuclear annihilation had penetrated deeply into the consciousness of children and adolescents." Many students said they had been aware of nuclear weapons from an early age and were uneasy about the future.

John Goldenring and Ronald Doctor of California State University at Northridge reported similar findings in 1983 from a sample of 913 California high school students. In ranking their three greatest worries, 7 percent included "nuclear war" and 5 percent included "war." Almost one-quarter of the sample said nuclear war had affected their plans for the future.

Mack and psychiatrist Eric Chivian of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently polled 293 Soviet youngsters between 9 and 17 years of age and report a level of concern higher than that found in the United States. In interviews with 60 Soviet children, Chivian says they "voice an anxiety that nuclear war could break out at any moment and demonstrate feelings of despair and helplessness as well as a belief that they may not grow up."

Researchers in Canada, Finland and Sweden also report considerable awareness of and worrying about nuclear war among samples of teenagers. These worries, they point out, decrease markedly with age. In Canada, for example, the proportion of adolescents surveyed in the Toronto area who rank "war/peace" as their first worry drops from 37 percent at age 12 to 16 percent at age 19.

"No one has data to show that teenagers' lives are changed by nuclear concerns," Chivian told SCIENCE NEWS. "But it's fair to say, on the basis of lots of people looking at kids for several years, that an important proportion of American adolescents, maybe 10 to 15 percent, are quite concerned about nuclear war."

Psychiatrist Monika M. Eisenbud of Harvard, who recently presented a review of research on this issue at an American Orthopsychiatric Association meeting, sees more in the data. Children need to be interviewed in depth over a number of years for a better understanding of their anxieties, she says, but the surveys conducted so far show that "many kids are afraid because of the nuclear situation and are afraid to talk about their concerns with parents or other adults."

Psychologist Zeitlin agrees. He recently talked to 20 Boston-area families--including the family with the 15-year-old girl mentioned earlier--about their nuclear concerns and found the children were often reluctant to discuss this topic with their parents. In almost all of the families, he observes, children seemed to be protecting parents from the vulnerability and anguish experienced by their offspring. "I saw a lot of anger in response to the nuclear issue among 11- to 14-year-olds, especially boys," says Zeiltin. "Adults responded, more than anything, to a feeling of helplessness."

Yet Coles, who has been interviewing children and families for over 25 years, says he finds nuclear concern--not anger or fear--among some children of white, upper-middle-class, liberally inclined parents and virtually no such concern among working-class and poor white and black children. Adolescents in poor families, he notes, are more likely to worry about where money for basic needs will come from and how to get by without family resources or job skills.

Class affiliation and the context in which children live have been overlooked in many of the nuclear fears studies, holds Coles. "It is important to know which children [are scared], from what family backgrounds, living where," he explains. "Which fears? How significantly do these fears exert themselves? What, if any, are the everyday, practical consequences of those fears?c

Research in this area, he continues, "is not yet at all adequate and, I fear, has been used in a thoroughly political way, which in the long run may cause real harm to the [nuclear] freeze movement."

Many of the investigators of nuclear concerns, including Mack, Chivian, Goldenring and Zeitlin, are active in pro-freeze organizations, such as Physicians for Social Responsibility, which often cite their work as evidence for escalating despair among youngsters.

Psychologist Joseph Adelson of the University of Michigan goes farther in criticizing the research. "Much of the evidence [on nuclear concerns] is amateurish," says Adelson, who co-wrote a review of the studies in the April COMMENTARY. "Most of it is unacceptably soft."

Surveys of adolescents' views on the nuclear situation are extremely difficult to devise and interpret, maintains Adelson, because many young people have not formed an adult capacity to think about abstract political and social issues.

During the late 1950s, Adelson and his co-workers interviewed nearly 1,000 children in the United States, England and West Germany from the ages of 10 through 18. Most of the American children, who made up a majority of the sample, were from urban, blue-collar families.

During early adolescence, the youngsters were unable to master abstract concepts such as "government," "society" or "the state." They tended to equate these large systems with a person such as the governor or the President, reports Adelson. Not until late adolescence--and even then, not in all cases--were they able to think about multiple influences on political events and look past the immediate future in assessing the consequences of political decisions.

These limitations in youngsters' ability to think abstractly, he says, muddy the data on their attitudes toward nuclear war. Surveys such as those conducted by Bachman simply show that teenagers are aware of nuclear issues, asserts Adelson; it is not known how much anxiety adolescents harbor about nuclear war.

Comments psychologist Jerome Kagan of Harvard: "The nuclear concerns picked up in surveys may be deep or they may indicate a superficial awareness of a hot political topic. There's no way to know without extensive interviews and observation."

Chivian acknowledges that "some of the criticism has been well founded. There are survey questions that have been poorly drawn." But enough is known about teenagers' nuclear concerns, he adds, to encourage further study. Chivian is now designing a large-scale survey of adolescents' feelings about nuclear war, beliefs about the future and perceptions of the U.S.-Soviet relationship.

"All of us in this area of research have a tendency toward researcher bias and getting what we want from interviews," says Zeitlin. "But in my interviews, people know what my bias is. I'm not out to alarm anybody."

Still, says Coles, getting to the nub of a person's fears is a long journey knee-deep in human contradictions and inconsistencies. Some good examples, he notes, are a number of high school students he has interviewed in an affluent Boston suburb. These teenagers readily express fears of nuclear war to researchers, he explains, but within minutes they shift gears and talk just as earnestly with friends about going to Bermuda on vacation or getting into the right Ivy League college.

"Context means a hell of a lot," says Coles. "How is a life lived? That's where class is so important. Our assumptions are determined by our class. And those of us at the top of the class ladder have the social sciences working overtime for us."
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Author:Bower, Bruce
Publication:Science News
Date:Aug 17, 1985
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