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What Frightens America's Youth?

by Linda Lyons

For many Americans, the definition of fear changed on Sept. 11, 2001. With the memory of those attacks still vivid in their young minds, U.S. teens still perceive terrorism as a real threat -- it ranks among the things teens fear most.

When Gallup recently asked 13- to 17-year-olds what they are most afraid of in an open-ended format*, there was no real consensus, but terrorism was mentioned by 8% -- the most frequently mentioned topic. Most teens just said "terrorism" or "terrorists," but some named specific horrors, such as "biochemical attack," "chemical terrorist attack," "biological warfare," or "another incident like 9/11."

Such responses likely remind baby boomers of the pervasive anxiety generated among young people during the Cold War in the 1950s and 1960s. Back then, fears of nuclear war led to talk about backyard fallout shelters and monthly atomic air raid warning drills in which schoolchildren had to "duck and cover" under their desks.

Equally sad themes -- such as death, dying, being killed, and deadly accidents -- are top-of-mind responses for another 7% of America's teens. Accidents are the No. 1 cause of adolescent deaths.

Arachnophobia exists among U.S. teens -- fear of spiders is among most commonly mentioned fears, at 7%. Other types of wildlife are found among the responses -- sharks, bugs, snakes, animals in general -- but spiders are easily the most recurrent.

More Teen Fears

Three other fears garner mentions by about 5% of teens each. The Iraq war has been making the news for the last two years and is obviously a concern for teens. About 1 in 20 name some aspect of war as their greatest fear, including "a third world war," "war on U.S. soil," and "being drafted." 

Fear of failure or of not succeeding in life is about as common. Teens' specific responses in this vein include:

  • "Making mistakes that will mess up my life"
  • "Not being successful" 
  • "Not measuring up"
  • "Not getting into a good college"
  • "I'll close doors on myself and find myself in a position where I can't succeed because of something I'm doing right now"
  • "Afraid of failing in life in general -- not achieving the goals I have set for myself"
  • "Not leaving a mark"

Other Common Teen Fears

Also on the list of common teen fears are becoming crime victims, being alone, nuclear war, and a general fear of the future. A few more responses in teens' own words:

  • "The real world, like moving out, doing my own thing, getting a job"
  • "Growing up because you have to pay bills and stuff" 
  • "The workforce collapsing after I get out of college"
  • "The fact we never know when things will happen, like the tsunami. Anything could happen at any time."

*These results are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 1,028 teenagers in the Gallup Poll Panel of households, aged 13 to 17, conducted Jan. 17 to Feb. 6, 2005. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is ±3 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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