The other day my friend Courtney and I decided to go to the mall. I try to avoid the big crowds, and I thought I had done so by going to the mall in the early afternoon on a weekday, but unfortunately I had not taken into account that it was spring break for Ann Arbor middle and high schools and the mall was bustling with tween and teen girls and boys.
They were mostly gender segregated groups. The girls were wearing makeup, had on tight fitting clothes, and had purses and shopping bags casually swung around their shoulders. The boys were in loud packs, not necessarily shopping, but just hanging around the mall’s railings and beige furniture. Every once in a while the two groups would make contact, trying to interact in an awkward dance, wanting to seem adult in their behavior (hugging, holding hands, laughing at each others jokes) but not quite being able to (teasing each other, sticking out their tongues as a defense mechanism to insult). That’s when I wondered how an arena like the mall plays into the health behaviors of America’s youth.
Poor health behavior is all too common among American teens: according to the CDC report on adolescent health 26% if teens reported episodic binge drinking, and 2.1 million kids abused prescription drugs. Almost 50% reported having had sexual intercourse, while 40% of sexually active high schoolers reported not having used a condom during their last intercourse. In fact 23% of surveyed students used drugs or alcohol before the last time they engaged in sex (being under the influence increases risky behavior).
At the mall, the kids seemed relative safe. It was daytime, they were too young to drive so one of their parents would come pick them up before dinner, someone knew where they were, there were lots of people around. As I made my way out of the mall I caught a glimpse of a boy, who could be no more than thirteen, grabbing and pinching the butt of a girl, who although taller than him, likely was the same age. He then pulled a little bag out of her back pocket that looked like it contained marijuana. It left me confused about the mall in general, is it a place were nothing can go wrong, or just a place full of people and no supervision for these little adults, who want to act grown up but without having any responsibilities?
Maybe the mall is a good place to stage health behavior interventions, give counseling on safe sexual health practices and the dangers of drug abuse. Maybe it would be a good place to tell the kids that they do not have to participate in these unhealthy behaviors to be cool and have friends. I was in those same positions ten years ago and my choices were not always the best. I blame it on the pressure. Hopefully we, as public health professionals, will be able to relieve some of that.