Parents seeking a safe haven for their kids away from the pressures and pitfalls of the modern world might want to think twice about “simple” small town living. The values of rural teens aren’t that different than their urban counterparts—and their behaviour is sometimes worse.
When it comes to sex, 60 per cent of 15-to 19-year olds from communities with populations less than 10,000 admit to being active, versus just 49 per cent in the country’s largest (400,000-plus) centres. And more small town kids (75 per cent) are accepting of premarital relations than in the big city (70 per cent.)
But the Project Teen Canada 2008 survey also uncovered some surprising attitudes and beliefs that seem at odds with society’s traditional view of life away from the bright lights. Youth from smaller communities put slightly less, not more, importance on honesty, concern for others and politeness—as measured by a willingness to flip someone the bird—than both urban kids and the national average. They feel less pressure to do well in school, and report more trouble with the police. And they express more support for having kids out of wedlock, perhaps a reflection of the fact that their own parents are less likely to be married.
THE YOUTH SURVEY AT MACLEANS.CA: 1. Generation Tame 2. City vs. Country Kids 3. Teens lose faith in droves 4. The surprising optimism of Aboriginal teens 5. When it comes to sex, teen girls are acting more like boys 6. Immigrant teens find that tolerance goes both ways in Canada
Reginald Bibby, the University of Lethbridge sociologist who carried out the survey, sees the changes in rural Canada as part of a pattern of homogenization across our society. “Growing access to media in its diverse forms—and particularly television and the Internet—increasingly has eroded geographical boundaries,” he says. “Consequently, young people look pretty much the same, whether one is looking at entertainment choices, acceptance of racial and lifestyle diversity, perception of crime and strangers, values or spirituality.” He points to findings from past Teen Canada surveys suggesting that there has been a general decline in the values of the country’s youth. In 1984, for example 79 per cent of those polled said cleanliness was “very important.” In 2008, the percentage was just 59, with no differences between rural and urban kids. Similarly 62 per cent rated intelligence as important back in the 80s, versus just 54 percent today (tumbling to 45 per cent in the smallest communities.)
In fact, the differences that continue to persist between city and country appear to be mostly negative. A 2007 University of Alberta study, for example, found that 13 and 14 year old boys living in rural areas of the province were the most likely in their age group to access pornography, and the least likely to have received a sex talk from their parents. Dr. Miriam Kaufman, an author and specialist in adolescent sexuality at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children, points to other research that shows rural youth are more likely to abuse alcohol and other substances, have unprotected sex and have access to firearms. “People move to rural areas because it’s a better place to raise their children. And that may be true,” she says. “But once you hit adolescence, there’s not much to do in smaller centres beyond drink and have sex.”
One possibility is that it’s not the country that is changing so much as our cities. A massive influx of immigrants from socially conservative societies has undeniably altered the face of urban Canada. Could it be affecting its culture too? Bibby points to findings in the survey suggesting city kids and their families are more religious. (Seventy-one per cent of teens in the largest centres say they believe in a higher power, versus 65 per cent in the smallest communities. And perhaps more revealingly, the figure jumps to 76 per cent for those whose parents were born outside the country, compared to 63 per cent for those with parents born in Canada.) But anecdotally at least, those values may not be that durable. Kaufman says that in her practice, she sees many patients from cultural communities who are struggling to reconcile family and religious values with the pressures of being a Canadian teen. “It’s like abstinence education,” she says. “We know from the U.S. experience that it doesn’t make teens any less likely to be sexually active.”
Another factor that may be at play in the transformation of small towns is the changing economy. Well before the current global downturn, many of Canada’s outlying communities had been experiencing tough times. On the East Coast it was the fishery. In the heartland Free Trade upended the manufacturing model. And the ups and downs of the forestry industry have taken their toll across the country. Tony Winson, a professor of Sociology at the University of Guelph, has studied the hollowing-out of smaller centres. “There are bound to be problems,” he says. “There are feelings of hopeless and that there is no future in the community.” He cites the experience in Newfoundland where many breadwinners have left their families behind to take up jobs in other parts of the country. In Ontario, well-paid manufacturing jobs were replaced with service-sector positions when the local plants closed down. It all contributes to the pressures on youth, says Winson.
Given all the challenges and temptations, perhaps the surprise is that small town kids aren’t worse. If, as Bibby suggests, television and the Internet are shaping how life is perceived—and lived—in both large and small centres, we should be thankful that our reality doesn’t look more like reality television.