Is it an expression of a nurturing concern for the others? Or is the outbreak of hugging amongst teenagers an empty fad that thrives in today’s atmosphere of boundless informality? Whatever is behind it, hugging is hip with teens.

Parents, who grew up in a generation more likely to use the handshake, the low-five or the high-five, are often baffled by the close physical contact. “It’s a wordless custom, from what I’ve observed,” wrote Beth J. Harpaz, the mother of two boys, 11 and 16, and a parenting columnist for The Associated Press, in a new book, “13 Is the New 18.”

But the sight of kids embracing every time they run into their pals is beginning to get on teachers’ nerves. Some schools have banned it; others have imposed a three-second rule. There are concerns about litigation if some of the boy-girl hugging gets out of hand.

“Touching and physical contact is very dangerous territory,” said Noreen Hajinlian, the principal of George G. White School, a junior high school in Hillsdale, N.J., who banned hugging two years ago. “It was needless hugging — they are in the hallways before they go to class. It wasn’t a greeting. It was happening all day.”

But pro-hugging students say it is not a romantic or sexual gesture, simply the “hello” of their generation. “We like to get cozy,” said Katie Dea, an eighth grader at Claire Lilienthal Alternative School in San Francisco. “The high-five is, like, boring.”

Sociologists have different theories about it: childhood play experiences that makes children more co-operative and group oriented; the general tendency for people to touch more — and display bodies more; the spread of the “gangsta hug” among urban youth.

Some parents find it paradoxical that a generation so steeped in hands-off virtual communication would be so eager to hug.

“Maybe it’s because all these kids do is text and go on Facebook so they don’t even have human contact anymore,” said Dona Eichner, the mother of freshman and junior girls at the high school in Montvale. She added: “I hug people I’m close to. But now you’re hugging people you don’t even know. Hugging used to mean something.”

One student agrees: “It’s like air-kissing. It’s really superficial.” But a teacher thinks it is a good sign that children are inclined to nurture one another. And it can even be done remotely: Facebook applications allowing friends to send hugs have tens of thousands of fans. ~ New York Times, May 28

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet