Kids these days are apparently growing up more slowly than they used to. According to a large and fascinating new study in the journal Child Development, today’s teens are less likely to engage in “adult” activities like dating, driving, having sex, drinking alcohol, working for pay and going out without their parents than teens in past decades.
Researchers Jean M. Twenge of San Diego State University and Heejung Park of Bryn Mawr College analyzed data from seven nationally representative surveys that included more than 8.4 million teens. The result? “In terms of adult activities, 18-year-olds now look like 15-year olds once did,” Twenge said in the press release.
To get specific, in the early 2010s, 12th graders went out without their parents less frequently than 8th graders did in the early 1990s, and they went on dates roughly as often as 10th graders did in the early 1990s.
This doesn’t seem to be a case of certain teens in certain areas or groups abstaining from these activities for longer either. It’s a “broad-based cultural shift”, the researchers note, holding true across gender, race, socioeconomic status and regions. And the reasons for it are complicated.
Time spent on homework or extracurriculars didn’t seem to play a role, as the amount of time teens devoted to those activities declined, stayed stable, or increased by just a tiny bit decade to decade. (The study looked at data from the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, 2000s and 2010s.) One aspect of today’s teen life that’s definitely changed, however, is the internet and the ever-present smartphone. Surprisingly though, they may not be the teen behavior game-changers we tend to think they are.
“The internet and smartphones may play a role in some of these trends, especially in the last 10 years, but the trends started before these technologies were available, so there must be other causes,” Twenge, author of iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy–and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood, told Thrive Global over email. In the study, Twenge and Park also note in the study that it’s not clear whether teens are staying in because they’re so absorbed with their online lives that they choose digital interactions over actual ones, or whether they’re turning to the internet because they’re parents won’t let them go out.
Those causes Twenge referred to over email relate back to the world American teens are living in today and something researchers call life history theory. This theory (and the research that supports it) suggests that a mix of factors ranging from average family size and median household income to life expectancy and teen birth rates all play a role in how quickly kids grow up. With fewer kids in the family, for example, parents may be able to devote more time and attention to each kid, which could lead to kids engaging in fewer adult activities at a younger age. In a nutshell, if your childhood is tough and unpredictable, you grow up quickly; if it’s stable and comfortable, you’re in no rush to reach adulthood.
In this study, the researchers wrote that “An economically rich social context with higher parental investment in fewer children, greater life expectancy, fewer dangers from pathogens, and the expectation of tertiary education and later reproduction has produced a generation of young people who are taking on the responsibilities and pleasures of adulthood later than their predecessors.”
On the face of things, this is neither good nor bad. (Though parents of teens might think this is the greatest news they’ve ever heard.) On one hand, a longer childhood seems like a lovely thing. But delaying the transition to adolescence, and subsequently to adulthood, could have consequences. This tracks with previous research noted by Twenge and Park showing that young adults between the ages of 18 and 29 are reaching adult milestones like marriage, kids and gainful employment later than they used to. In fact, they write that “This generational shift has been so fundamental that some have suggested young adults now be known by the new label ’emerging adults’ to highlight their self-exploration and delayed transitions to adulthood.”
This latest research may in fact pinpoint where this delayed shift to adulthood begins, as Jenny Anderson notes at Quartz. It’s still not clear what all of this means for the lives of today’s teens, but the researchers do note one important point any parents of teens should remember: these findings don’t mean your teenager is more responsible than you were at their age.
Read the full study here.