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Teenagers and youth

by Carl Walrond

The teenage years can be a fertile period of experimentation and self-discovery, with teens banding together face-to-face or via social media as goths, geeks, emos, haul girls, Beliebers, Twiheads, Potterheads, LARPers or other subcultures. Youth behaviour has often prompted adult outrage – from concern about ‘juvenile delinquents’ in 1840 and rock ’n’ rollers in the 1950s to the outcry over boy racers in the 21st century.

Defining teenagers as a group

Teenagers (from 13 to 19 years old) are typically at secondary school, in their early years of university or other post-school study or training, or in their first few years of paid work. The teenage years mark the transition from childhood to adulthood. Yet the term ‘teenager’ only originated in 1921 and came into New Zealand language in the 1950s. ‘Youth’ was a common term for young people in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Those in their early teens were considered children until they left school, entered employment and became adults.

Teenager origins

The adjective ‘teenage’ first appeared in written English in a Canadian newspaper in 1921, but was probably used in spoken language earlier. The noun ‘teen-ager’ first appeared in an American publication in 1941, and the hyphen was eventually dropped. The term only came into common use in New Zealand in the 1950s.

In the 21st century ‘teenager’ (or ‘teen’) was often used, perhaps as it defined a more specific age group than the terms ‘adolescent’ or ‘youth’. Older teenagers were also termed ‘youth’ or ‘young adults’.

Youth, school and work

It was not until the 20th century that some prosperous societies could afford to let most of their younger members have a childhood and adolescence of play, education and outdoor activity, largely free of work. In Māori society all iwi members worked and children were considered adults when they reached puberty. On farms, children of European settlers cleared bush, harvested crops and milked cows. Boys were unpaid labourers and girls helped with domestic chores and child-rearing.

While the Education Act 1877 made schooling free, secular and compulsory from the ages of seven to 13, it was not enforced. Many children and adolescents spent much of their time doing paid and unpaid work until the early 20th century. ‘Working age’ – the age of beginning full-time paid work – was around 12 in the late 1800s. Secondary schooling only became common in the early 20th century. The school leaving age was raised from 14 to 15 in 1944, and to 16 in 1993. Secondary school removed adolescents from the adult society of work and made them a distinct group.

Youth organisations and support services

European settlers brought ideas of guiding youth to be good future citizens. The Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) was established in New Zealand in 1855, followed by the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) in 1878. Youth organisations such as these, and the Boy Scouts and Girl Guides, provided positive social and recreational opportunities for young people within a Christian tradition. In the early 1960s some of these groups formed the National Youth Council to act as a voice for young people. This disbanded in 1989, the same year that the Ministry of Youth Affairs was set up.

Once teenagers were defined as a distinct social group, support services grew to meet their needs. In 1977 the Department of Internal Affairs funded the first detached youth workers who worked out in the community. Youthline (established in 1970) offered counselling services by young people for young people, including a free phone helpline. The youth development sector organsiation Ara Taiohi was established in 2010 from the merger of the National Youth Workers Network Aotearoa and New Zealand Aotearoa Adolescent Health and Development.

Transitions and social relationships

School to work

Many teenagers work part-time after school, and many leave school to begin apprenticeships or full-time paid work. While the rates of pay for young people are often low, they learn a range of life skills such as punctuality and how to interact with other people in work situations. The transition from school to work can be difficult – in 2005, 18.4% of early school leavers (those who left school as soon as they could) were unemployed and were not in training or education.

Beginning to work and earn money marks an important transition to adulthood. Young people move from economic and social dependence on their parents to independence. Teenagers become legally permitted to leave home, to have sex (at the age of 16), drive (16), marry (16), vote (18), buy alcohol (18), go to war (18) and manage their own money (16). Unsurprisingly, there are often tensions between parents and teenagers as relationships change from parent–child to adult–adult.

Identity and self-awareness

Identity and self-awareness develop in the early teenage years. Often this involves some emotional separation from their parents. Teenagers start to communicate less with their families and more with their peers. While this can be worrying for parents, it is entirely predictable.

The teen years have been described as “a phase of life that young people experience and navigate as they make their way in the world”.1 This can involve rejecting older people’s views about teenagers and developing new life styles and political agendas. Some young people form youth-focused political organisations organised around sexual and gender diversity, environmental issues and the future of the planet.

Bedrooms are important for teenagers as a place to escape from the rest of the family. Teens listen to music, read magazines, play computer games, watch television, do homework and often analyse the events of the day in their bedrooms. In the 21st century social media sites such as Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, WhatsApp, Tumblr, Groupme and Twitter had become important channels for socialising. Many teenagers had computers in their rooms or used tablets or smart phones to communicate with others.

Teenage language

The teen years are years of growth, empowerment and independence. An appreciation of irony, sarcasm, nuance and sophisticated humour all develop, facilitating teasing and flirting, and often in-group words and slang. Many adults struggle to understand teenage language – but teens’ communication is intentionally exclusive.

From the late 1990s mobile phones (especially texting), followed by social media websites in the early 21st century, became popular avenues of communicating, gossiping and sometimes bullying. Texting saw the rise of a new language of abbreviated words and acronyms such as ‘lol’ (laughing out loud) ‘gr8’ (great) and ‘cul8r’ (see you later). Text language was so widespread that in 2009 the New Zealand Qualifications Authority allowed its use in exams, citing it as an example of the evolution of language.

Geeks, goths and more

Teenagers form a wide range of groups, each with their own dress style and favoured activities. Some examples from the 1980s, 1990s and 21st century included geeks, nerds, skaties (skateboarders), homies (who emulated Los Angeles youth gang homeboy dress), gamers (who played computer games), goths (who wore black clothes and whitened their faces with makeup), bogans (or westies), surfies (surfers), metlars (who listened to heavy-metal music), punks, Rastas (Rastafarians), rugby heads, boy racers and bps (beautiful people).

Youth subcultures

For teenagers, their peer group (along with their parents) plays a vital part in determining their value system and aspirations. Many teenagers are involved in team sports with peers. Teenagers at school tend to form groups and cliques, which are often readily identifiable by hairstyles and clothing. Labels come and go and can change. For example in the 1980s someone dressed in black with teased hair was a goth. In the early 21st century some aspects of this style was termed ‘emo’ – a term for fans of emotive hardcore punk. Emos had  teased hairstyles that were thick at the top, but thinner at the bottom, fringes and hair dyed black or in striking colours. Fitted jeans and Converse or Adidas shoes and vintage band T shirts were part of emo style.

    • Chris Brickell, Teenagers: The rise of youth culture in New Zealand. Dunedin: University of Otago Press, 2017, p.3.  Back

Teenage sexuality


At the beginning of the 21st century puberty occurred three years earlier on average than it did in most western societies a century earlier – probably largely because of improved nutrition. For New Zealanders in the early 21st century, puberty increasingly began before the teenage years, although the general trend toward earlier puberty seemed to be slowing.

Teenage sexuality

Beginning to have sex during the teenage years (often with the sanction of marriage) has been the norm throughout recorded history. Since the late 1960s most New Zealanders have had their first sexual experience during their teens and outside marriage.

Perceptions that teenagers are having sex earlier and earlier, and that more of them are doing so, are unfounded. In 2012, 8% of 13-year-olds reported that they had had sex. The likelihood of sexual experiences rose with age, and just under half of those aged 17 and over reported having sex. Only 46% of teenagers used a condom every time they had sex.

Extended transition

According to New Scientist humans are the only animals that have a prolonged adolescence spanning the second decade of life. Other species quickly make the transition from juveniles to adults. Adolescence seems to have evolved to allow humans to acquire new mental, physical and social skills.

Teen pregnancy

Teen marriages were relatively uncommon in the 21st century, yet in 1971 one in three marriages involved teenage women. Many of these were ‘shotgun weddings’, where the couple married due to pregnancy. In the 19th century and through most of the 20th century, teenage pregnancy outside of marriage generated moral disapproval. Children born to unmarried mothers were defined as ‘illegitimate’, and were often adopted out.

From the 1960s, more teenage mothers began keeping their babies, and attitudes changed. In the 21st century teen pregnancy was seen more as a socio-economic problem leading to a cycle of poverty and welfare dependency than a moral issue. In the 2010s the teen pregnancy rate dropped, but when compared with other developed countries, the rate was still high. The rate for Māori women was considerably higher than for all teenage women. The abortion rate for teenagers more than doubled between 1980 and 2007, but then rapidly dropped, reaching early 1980s rates by 2014.

Motherhood can limit the career prospects of young women. Pregnancy at a time when the mother is still physically maturing also brings higher medical risk factors for both mother and child. Some secondary schools have Teen Parent Units funded by the Ministry of Education. These have childcare facilities which allow young mothers to continue their schooling.

Sex education

Sex education was prohibited in schools in 1945. Even by the late 1960s, only a few schools provided some very limited sex education in the sixth form, and plans to extend the sex-education programme were opposed by conservatives in the 1970s. It was illegal to even discuss contraception with an under-16-year-old until 1989. More comprehensive sex education was introduced in 1989, although schools could opt out of teaching the sex-education components of the health curriculum.

From 2001 both primary and secondary schools taught classes on sexuality (sexual orientation) and sex (the physical act). Students could opt out of sexuality education, but not sex education. Teaching younger students was necessary, as some were entering puberty before the age of 10.


The trend of pre-teen girls emulating the dress styles of teenage girls has led to the use of the term ‘tweenie’ to describe 9–12-year-olds. Concerns from parents, typically amplified by the media, are that their children are growing up too soon and losing their innocence.

While sex education provides information about the risks of sexually transmitted infections, and how to prevent them, many teenagers do not consistently use condoms. Teenagers are the age group most likely to have multiple partners, and least likely to recognise and prevent sexually transmitted infections. School sex education often failed to address the social context in which much teenage sex took place – outside of relationships, and often under the influence of alcohol.

Teenagers and risk

The teenage brain

During the 1990s and early 21st century, research indicated that teenage brains are different to adult brains. By age 12 the brain is as large as it is at age 20. Research has shown that teenagers use different parts of their brains than adults when thinking about actions. Adults used parts of their brain that considered the consequences of actions on others, while teenagers were less likely to do this.

Teenagers can be susceptible to depression. They are less able to interpret social situations and other people’s emotions, and are also more likely to indulge in risky behaviours. In 2011 the driving age was raised from 15 to 16. Some lawmakers said that, if they had known what was now known about the teenage brain, the driving age would never have been set as low as 15.

Risk-taking behaviour

A major survey of secondary school students in 2012 found that 90% reported that their health was excellent, very good or good and that they were feeling okay, satisfied or very happy with their life. Seventy-two per cent said they got on well with their families. However, many teenagers did take risks and have accidents. While road-safety campaigns, including those against drink-driving, have reduced death and injury rates among young men since the 1970s, the rates remain high relative to older adults. In 2014 one-quarter of road users killed or injured were aged 15–24, and 60% of these were male.

Flirting with delinquency

A landmark study of more than 1,000 people born in Dunedin in 1972–73 found that there were two main groups involved in anti-social behaviour such as minor crimes. One was a small group who remained offenders all their lives, while the second, larger group flirted with delinquency (vandalism or shoplifting) in their teens. They then ceased offending and settled down with jobs, families and friends.

Alcohol and drugs

Teenagers are great experimenters – for instance, many try smoking although most do not become life-long smokers. Most begin drinking alcohol in social situations in their early teens, even though they are legally not allowed to buy alcohol. One third of New Zealanders have their first drink at 14 or younger. The Sale of Liquor Act 1989 eased restrictions on alcohol sales, and in 1999 the drinking age dropped from 20 to 18. Many teenagers believed alcohol helped them relax, talk to people and get to know others.

Fifty-seven per cent of secondary students surveyed for the Youth '12 study had tried alcohol, 8% drank alcohol weekly or more frequently and 23% had engaged in binge drinking (five or more alcoholic drinks within four hours) in the four weeks before they completed the survery. Self-reported use of other drugs, such as party pills, was very low. 

In the 1990s and early 21st century the consumption of ‘alcopops’ became popular with female teenagers. These ready-mixed drinks were cheap and easily available, and their sweet taste mimicked the soft drinks that many children were accustomed to. Boys typically began drinking beer in their mid-teens.

New Zealand has a binge-drinking culture which is not limited to the teenage years. In the 2000s teenagers were drinking more in a single session, and more at a younger age, than in the 1990s. As inexperienced drinkers with lower body weights and less tolerance for alcohol than adults, teenagers can get drunk much more easily. The major costs of this are drink driving, car accidents, property damage, violence and sexual assaults.

Binge drinking among teenagers declined in the early 21st century, suggesting messages about its dangers were having an effect. In 2001, 40% of teenagers surveyed had drunk to excess in the last four weeks, compared to 23% in 2012.

Experimentation with illegal drugs is common, but only a minority develop an addiction or a long-term habit.


Depression is an ongoing mood of severe unhappiness that continues for more than a couple of weeks. As depression can lead to suicide, and few young people seek help themselves, health professionals advise parents, relatives and friends to encourage depressed young people to go and see their doctor. One of the many risk factors for developing depression is being aged 16–24. Sixteen per cent of female secondary school students and 9% of male students reported symptoms of clinical depression when they completed the Youth '12 survey. Thirty-eight per cent of female students and 23% of male students reported 'feeling down or depressed' for at least two weeks in the preceding year.

Teenagers and brain growth

Taking around 18 years to mature is unheard of in other species. This is over 20% of a modern human’s lifespan and probably over half a hunter-gatherer’s life. Some scientists think that it was some time between 300,000 and 800,000 years ago that humans began reaching the age of 13 without being physically mature. The evolution of teenagers – humans aged over 12 who are not yet adults – may have preceded the massive growth of human brains that occurred around 250,000 years ago. This leads to the intriguing possibility that prolonged adolescence may have been one of the factors that contributed to increased brain size.


The World Health Organization defines ‘youths’ as those aged 15-24, and New Zealand has a high youth suicide rate compared to other OECD countries. However the teenage (15-19 years) male suicide rate has generally been lower than that for young adult (20-24 years) and middle aged males (35-49 years). Male youth suicide rates began to rise in the 1970s, peaked in the mid-1990s and declined from the late 1990s before rising again. While the female youth suicide rate is lower overall, it has steadily increased since the 1980s and in 2013 the highest rates among women were in the 15-19 age group. A higher male suicide rate does not mean that suicide is primarily a male problem. Females make more suicide attempts than males, but tend to choose methods that are less lethal.

The 2012 survey of secondary school students indicated that 21% of the female students and 10% of the male students had thought about suicide in the previous year. Two per cent of the male students surveyed reporting attempting suicide during that time.

Control and rebellion

The behaviour of young people often attracts public attention, especially when they behave in ways that older people consider unacceptable.

19th century and early 20th century

In the early 1840s the arrival of young boys from Britain in Auckland prompted newspaper protests about ‘juvenile delinquency’ – a term often used to describe wayward behaviour, especially in young men. In the 1870s and 1880s newspapers reported the problem of larrikinism – adolescents loitering in streets.

From 1867 children under 15 years who were in trouble with the law, or whose parents could not or would not look after them, could be sent to industrial schools or boarded out to learn work skills. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries young people were considered ‘impressionable’ and vulnerable to temptation. Sexes were segregated in social situations and wealthier young women were often chaperoned.

1920s to 1940s

Challenges to the established conservative social order came during the 1920s. Some young women cut their hair short, wore tight clothes, smoked in public, danced new dances and went to films without chaperones. Questioning the older generation’s values was stifled by the 1930s economic depression, the Second World War and post-war austerity, but would explode in the 1950s.

In need of protection?

Following a scandal in Lower Hutt in the 1950s when a group of young teenagers were found to be having sex, New Zealand’s criminal law was amended. For the first time it became an offence for a woman over the age of 21 to have sexual relations with a male under the age of 16. In a 1970 article, Wellington solicitor Nigel Taylor mused, tongue-in-cheek, ‘One often wonders whether the adolescent male of fourteen would necessarily want to be protected.’1


In the early 1950s teenagers dressed similarly to their parents. This changed in the mid-1950s, when dress, music, dance and movies from the United States were catalysts. Suddenly teenagers began listening to rock ’n’ roll, hanging out at milk bars and wearing distinctive clothes such as stovepipe trousers and brightly coloured socks. These young men were known as bodgies – their female counterparts were widgies. In 1953 in Lower Hutt a sex scandal involving young teenagers resulted in a Special Committee on Moral Delinquency in Children and Adolescents. Its 1954 report recommended increased censorship of films, and of publications that featured sex, horror and crime.


In the 1960s young people strongly questioned the institutions and values of the previous generation. They signalled their independence through their tastes in music, movies, clothes and hairstyles.

Teen dreams

As a Wellington schoolgirl in 1955 Glen Fearnley couldn’t wait to grow up: ‘Teenager was a new thing, a postwar thing, which I sort of noticed as a kid. There was a lightening-up, particularly for girls, and prettier material became available for clothes. Teenager meant fun. American things were very exciting and we tried to be like Americans. My parents thought American things were not in good taste, rather brash. My parents did not have a teenage experience.’2

A great deal of 1960s popular culture came from the United States, through music, movies and radio, and then television. Businesses quickly discovered a new set of consumers – niche marketing to adolescents strengthened and drove the notion of teenagers as a distinct group with their own style. Since the 1950s each generation of teenagers in western industrial societies has listened to their own music and sported their own styles of dress and hairstyles, increasingly representing a globalised youth subculture.

Youth and censorship

A recurring theme in New Zealand’s censorship history has been the attempt to prevent a decline in ‘moral standards’, especially among youth. In the late 1930s American comics and magazines came under close scrutiny from government officials and the minister of customs and education banned some publications. In 1949 age restrictions for movies were introduced. In the early 1950s films such as The wild one were banned, and Rebel without a cause was only passed by the censor on appeal. Many more comics were banned during the 1950s.

In the early 1970s The little red schoolbook was very popular with young people, as it devoted 20 of its 200 pages to sex and 30 to drugs, including alcohol and tobacco. Before this there was very little accessible information for teenagers on these issues. Down under the plum trees, published in 1972, also discussed sex, sexuality and drugs. While adults often disapproved these publications, teenagers circulated the books through their personal networks. Since the 1980s censorship has become more liberal, and education has focused increasingly on providing information so students can make up their own minds. With the introduction of the internet in the 1990s, almost any material became available online. Some parents used internet filtering software to block their children’s access to certain websites.

21st century resistance

In the early 21st century many 13 to 19 year olds still resist the controls of parents, teachers and the state. This may take the form of questioning gender boundaries or embracing queer sexualities. Some young people become environmental activists and animal rights advocates. Others work to have an impact on the planning of cities and the provision of public spaces for teenagers.

    • Nigel R. Taylor, ‘The adolescent and the law.’ In The adolescent in New Zealand: the 1970 lectures / delivered to the Association for the Study of Childhood, Wellington, New Zealand. Wellington: New Zealand University Press, Price Milburn, 1971, p. 92. Back
    • Quoted in Redmer Yska, All shook up: the flash bodgie and the rise of the New Zealand teenager in the fifties. Auckland: Penguin, 1993, pp. 55–56. Back

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Carl Walrond, 'Teenagers and youth', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 20 September 2020)

Story by Carl Walrond, published 5 May 2011, updated 1 Aug 2017