By Kelly King Alexander
The current crop of 12- to 20-year-olds has never known life without cell phones, personal computers, MP3 players, or wireless technology. Reared on reality TV, many teens seem to have taken to heart the slogan of the popular video-sharing Web site YouTube: "Broadcast Yourself." Other sites let them blog about their every move or thought, post revealing photos, and chat online with a network of "friends" larger than the population of a small state. Little wonder they have been called the MyPod Generation (an amalgam of two of its most prominent obsessions, MySpace and the iPod).
But being a teenager today isn't just about text messaging and online socializing. These teens are also grappling with serious 21st-century issues like war, terrorism, and global warming. Some are pursuing academic excellence and promoting animal protection; some are struggling with obesity, teen parenthood, and other challenges. Still others are immigrants, trying, in the best American tradition, to assimilate while retaining a connection to their roots. The adults they become will determine our future. Here, meet five teens from throughout the United States who represent a slice of this new generation.
A Mom Too Soon It's just 18 degrees outside, but Kristen McManus, 17, wears bright-pink flip-flops with faded, frayed jeans. She looks like any other junior as she hoists a backpack over one shoulder and weaves through the throng of adolescents changing classes at Castle High School, in Newburgh, Indiana. Then, as she enters the school's brightly lit cafeteria, she spots her father, who's come with her infant daughter for a lunchtime visit. "Emma!" Kristen coos, rushing over to make sure her baby's snowsuit is snug. By now, 18 months after giving birth to Emma, Kristen is accustomed to her demanding dual existence: By day she tackles advanced algebra and other college-prep courses; by night she changes diapers and reads nursery rhymes to her baby. But, as her mother, Joan, 43, notes with considerable understatement, "It's no picnic."
When she started high school in fall 2005 Kristen was on the clean-scrubbed side of average: She played flute in the school band, earned B's, and hung out with friends who shunned drugs and alcohol in favor of movies and the mall. But in the fall of her freshman year she began dating a sophomore from a nearby town. A few months later, at 15, she was one of the first among her friends to have sex. Although reluctant to say much about the boy, Kristen recalls that "he was real sweet to me -- I thought we were in love." She'd learned about birth control in junior high health classes, but somehow never thought of using it. "It just happened," she says of their sexual relationship.
By spring she was pregnant -- and terrified. She feared disappointing her mother, an administrative nurse, and her father, a FedEx overnight package handler, who during the day cares for Kristen's siblings, Kalen, 14, Kiren, 9, and Kavan, 7. Instead, she told only her boyfriend and the two fantasized in secret about raising their baby together.
It was at Kristen's 16th birthday party in May 2006 that Joan first registered her daughter's weight gain and realized with a jolt that the girl might be pregnant. She confronted her daughter and a home test confirmed her condition a week later. "I was heartbroken," says Joan, who blames herself for letting Kristen go on dates in the boy's car and for not making sure she had contraception. "And angry," she adds. "I said, 'I'm not taking care of another baby!'" Joan suggested abortion, but Kristen was already four months along and wouldn't hear of it.
"We were pretty worried," admits dad Pete, 43. "She couldn't put her own socks in the laundry basket. How was she gonna take care of a baby?"