Today’s teens are on a slow road to adulthood, putting off risky behaviors from drinking to sex, but also delaying jobs, driving, dating and other steps towards independence, according to a new study based on 40 years of survey data.
Compared to teens from the 70s, 80s and 90s, today’s teens “are taking longer to engage in both the pleasures and the responsibilities of adulthood,” said Jean Twenge, professor of psychology at San Diego State University and the lead author on the study published Tuesday in the journal Child Development.
“The whole developmental pathway has slowed down,” she said, with today’s 18-year-olds living more like 15-year-olds once did.
The study relies on seven nationally representative surveys repeated with 8 million teens, ages 13-19, over several decades. It documents and combines several trends often explained as separate phenomena.
But Twenge and her co-author Heejung Park, assistant professor of psychology at Bryn Mawr College, say the trends all point in the same direction – a slowing of teen development that matches a well-documented slowing of young adult development. While people in their early 20s now often act more like teens, young teens often act more like children, Twenge said.
Eighth and ninth graders are less likely to have sex, drink, date, go out without parents or work for pay. Even by 12th grade, fewer engage in such adult activities than in the not-so-distant past, the data show.
Some of the changes recorded among younger teens surveyed in 2010-2016, compared to those surveyed in the early 1990s:
• 29% of 9th graders had sex, down from 38%.
• 29% of 8th graders drank alcohol, down from 56%.
• 32% of 8th graders had worked for pay, down from 63%
Among 12th graders, data on most behaviors goes back to 1976. In 2010-2016:
• 67% drank, down from 93% in the earlier era.
• 55% worked for pay, down from 76%.
• 73% had drivers’ licenses, down from 88%.
• 63% dated, down from 86%.
• 62% had had sex, down from 68% in the early 1990s, the earliest that data was collected.
The shifts are seen in all economic groups and all parts of the country. They are not explained by the demands of homework and extracurricular activities, which have not significantly increased, contrary to popular belief, the study says.
The lure of the internet – which might keep kids glued to screens instead of out driving and dating – probably has had some recent impact, Twenge said. And more attentive parenting, sometimes derided as “helicopter parenting,” certainly has played a role, she said.
Overall, today’s youths seem to be adopting a “slow life strategy” -- the opposite of “live fast and die young” – in a culture in which parents invest more attention in fewer children and life expectancies are longer, Twenge and her co-author conclude.
“There are advantages and disadvantages,” she said. “One of the advantages is that it’s safer.”
One disadvantage is that teens and youths often arrive at colleges and jobs unprepared for independence, she said. Twenge is the author of a new book: iGen Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy--and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood--and What That Means for the Rest of Us.
The trade-off between keeping teens safe and encouraging independence and resilience is a constant concern among today's parents, said Susan Borison, editor-in-chief of Your Teen Magazine and the mother of five young people ages 16 to 27.
“I think there’s a way to get both things,” she said, but many families are still struggling to find it.
“There’s something remarkably lovely,” about the close relationships many parents and teens now have, thanks in part to the constant connection made possible by technology, Borison said. “But the negative is that we are not letting our kids develop the capacity to problem solve and cope.”
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