How True to Life Is Euphoria’s Gritty Take on the High School Experience Really?

Experts say the creators may have overshot honesty just a touch

SPOILERS AHEAD. Don’t read if you haven’t watched the finale.

On Sunday night, the first season of the HBO drama Euphoria ended on a predictably grim note. Cassie got an abortion; Maddy and Nate finally end their toxic relationship; and recovering drug addict Rue, played by former Disney Channel actress Zendaya, relapsed, leaving her fate unclear in season two (yes, HBO already ordered a second season).

No high school-set show on television has depicted a vision of a teen experience that’s more replete with sex, drugs, and overwhelming malaise. IndieWire’s Ben Travers praised it for being “a teen drama that actually strives to be honest”—but not everyone’s convinced that grit equals veracity.

“Shows like Euphoria fixate on the traumatic aspects of adolescence, of relationships, and of sexuality,” says Pamela Regan, a social psychologist and professor at California State University, Los Angeles. “It is important to acknowledge those things exist, but is that all there is?” Long content to present a cheerful, sterilized version of what it’s like to come of age, Hollywood might actually be leaning too far in the opposite direction.

Creator Sam Levinson, who also penned the 2011 black comedy-drama Another Happy Day, is no stranger to cultivating on-screen strain. But according to Regan, the drama presented in Euphoria bears little resemblance to the average teen’s high-school experience and is more reflective of grown-up fantasy.

“We have screenwriters and people who are writing that are coming from such an adult perspective that they don’t think of the on-the-ground realities,” Regan explains. “There is a fine line between entertainment and fantasy and capturing people’s experiences. Euphoria markets itself as reflecting reality, but it actually presents a very gritty take on teens.”

Consider the stats: according to a study conducted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, about 3.5 percent of teens said they misused opioids over the past year. Heroin use in high school seniors decreased from about 10 percent in 2004 to under 3.5 percent in 2018, reflecting a general decline in opioid use. Misuse of Vicodin peaked in 2003 when over 10 percent of teens reported abusing the drug. Less than 2 percent of teens reported misusing the drug in 2018. Oxycontin use in teens is less than 3 percent now, as opposed to over 5 percent back in 2005.

The sexual antics portrayed on Euphoria may be off-base too. According to a study conducted for the Archives of Sexual Behavior in 2017, “contrary to popular media, conceptions of a ‘hookup generation’ more likely to engage in frequent casual sex, a higher percentage of Americans in recent cohorts, particularly Millennials and iGen’ers born in the 1990s, had no sexual partners after age 18.” Basically, teens today aren’t having sex like past teens did, but they’re perceived to be the most sexually casual generation yet.

The “sex recession” among young people today is argued to be a product of increased social media use, a decline in the rate of established “couples,” and an ever-decreasing taboo surrounding masturbation.

Even as hook-up apps like Tinder and Bumble proliferate, young people today are on track to lower the average number of sexual partners per person. A study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control in 2017 found that not only are teens having less sex, but they’re having it more safely than previous generations. “Only 42 percent of females aged 15-19 reported even having sex, and among teen males, the percent was 44 percent,” the study found, as opposed to their 1988 counterparts that were at 51 and 60 percent, respectively. Only a fraction of teens are having sex with someone they just met, and 99 percent of “sexually experienced female teens” have used a form of contraception.

The “sex recession” among young people today is argued to be a product of increased social media use, a decline in the rate of established “couples,” and an ever-decreasing taboo surrounding masturbation. In a recent piece for The Atlantic, Kate Julian argues that “the dysfunctional relationships so many of us have with our phones and social media” play into “the detriment of our relationships with humans.”

Regan relents that it’s important to acknowledge that some teens do experience exposure to drugs and sex at a younger age, and that one person’s reality is not another’s. Still, Jennifer Unger, who specializes in psychological, social, and cultural influences at the University of Southern California, suggests that Euphoria’s storylines are simply what sell.

“People can stream and binge watch all these shows. There’s more of an ability to get immersed in a show, where in the old days you had to wait for a show each week. If you’re competing with other teen shows like 13 Reasons Why and Riverdale, maybe you have to go [dark themes] to get viewers,” she explains.

“It is important to tell those stories, because there are people like you and me who had good high school experiences, we have to be aware that not all kids have that,” Regan says. “But is that really the reality of 90 percent of high schoolers, I would say no. The show could portray kids in a way that is negative, and can suggest that kids who aren’t doing drugs, not having sex, and aren’t skipping school are somehow absent. Adolescence is all about trying out different identities.”

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