Teens these days don’t drink much, don’t get into trouble and don’t have much unprotected sex — which most adults would consider a great trend. But they’re also putting off other “adult” activities too, like working, dating, learning to drive, or just going out without their parents.
That’s according to a new study published in the scientific journal Child Development.
The study found that the percentages of U.S. adolescents who have ever tried alcohol, have a driver’s license, work a job or date have plunged since 1976. After declining steadily for decades, the amount of teens drinking and dating dropped off a cliff around 2008 and hasn’t bounced back.
Since the end of the Great Recession, some teens have begun working for pay again and testing for their drivers licenses, but at nowhere near the levels they used to.
“A generation of young people...are taking on the responsibilities and pleasures of adulthood later than their predecessors,” the authors of the study wrote. “Teens are engaging in fewer adult activities and growing up more slowly (and are thus less like adults).”
Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, led the team that made the study. She goes deeper into its findings in her book “iGen: Why Today's Super-Connected Kids are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy — and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood.”
Twenge said that 18-year-olds these days behave like 15-year-olds did in the 1970s. It’s part of something called life history theory, which says that the rate of maturity varies based on the social context of the time period.
“Consistent with life history theory, adolescents are pursuing a slower life strategy in a social context of greater parental investment, lengthened education, delayed reproduction, lower pathogen prevalence, and longer lives. The developmental trajectory of adolescence has slowed, with teens growing up more slowly than they once did,” the researchers wrote.
It’s not especially clear why today’s teens have been delaying traditional adult activities for a longer time than any of their predecessors. One possible factor is the rise of the internet, but Twenge and her team say that that may only be part of the reason.
“Internet use cannot be the sole cause of the trends, as the decline in adult activities began before broadband Internet and smartphones were available. It is also unclear how Internet use could cause teens to work less and drink alcohol less,” they wrote.
The explosion of social media and digital communication could, however, have more to do with declines in things like going out without parents around and dating, the researchers said.
Scott Berson: 706-571-8578, @ScottBersonLE