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Teens and Music: Keep Your Ears Open

A teenager’s musical tastes can sometimes provide a glimpse into her state of mind. This is hardly an exact science, of course. Sometimes we put on music that reflects our innermost feelings; other times we use it for the express purpose of transforming our mood.

Nevertheless, certain genres, such as heavy metal, hardcore, goth, punk and gangsta rap, do tend to be associated more with rebellious, antisocial behavior, substance abuse, self-harm and thoughts of suicide than jazz, country and show tunes, to cite three examples. That’s not to say you won’t find model youths slamming into one another in the mosh pit at the foot of the stage, or that every young fan of the latest outwardly wholesome teen idol is chaste and pure. But paying attention to the music a youngster likes may be a way to learn more about the social group he or she belongs to at school. Some cliques come together based on a mutual interest in a particular style of music. The songs become their anthems. Each genre has its own dress code and attitude, which adolescents will adopt as a way of borrowing a self-identity. It’s been that way ever since rock and roll came along and gave young people an art form they could call their own, says Dr. Francis Palumbo, a pediatrician from Washington, D.C.

“When I was a teenager in the 1960s,” he recalls, “basically there were the kids who listened to folk music and those who listened to rock and roll. And the distinctions between them were very clear.” If a child seems depressed and isolated and listens to little else besides music laden with themes of death and despair, “that should send up a red flag that the situation needs to be addressed,” he says. The music is symptomatic of the youngster’s state of mind, not the other way around.

However, there is no evidence to link teenage suicide and rock lyrics, no matter how bleak and unsettling they may be. According to Dr. Palumbo, “Suicide does not occur in a vacuum. If listening to a song lyric or watching a video can push a child to that point, other events almost certainly led up to it. I don’t think that you can hold a recording artist responsible for that kind of action. It’s part of the overall picture, but no one factor is going to be singularly responsible for a youngster’s suicide.”

If your child is listening to music that contains ideas or words that you feel are inappropriate for him or her, “it is always a parent’s place to censor it,” says Dr. Palumbo. “But do so in a gentle, thoughtful way and do your homework first, so you know what you’re objecting to.”

Caution children not to listen to music at excessively high volume, especially through earphones or headphones. According to the National Institutes of Health, one in three cases of hearing loss derive at least in part from the noise pollution of daily life, including rock music.

Any loud noise eighty decibels or higher can potentially cause permanent ear damage. The louder the sound, the less time it takes to impair your hearing. A typical rock concert or stereo headset played at maximum volume— about 110 decibels—can damage a youngster’s ears in just thirty minutes.

Last Updated
Caring for Your Teenager (Copyright © 2003 American Academy of Pediatrics)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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