Any parent will say their kids are growing up too fast, but when it comes to today’s teens, that’s not exactly true anymore. It might still seem so, but a new study published in the journal Child Development tells a different story.
According to Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University and the lead author of the study, 40 years of data from more than eight million teenagers show that today’s teens “…are taking longer to engage in both the pleasures and the responsibilities of adulthood.”
The Good News…and the Bad News
“Twenge concludes that today’s 18-year-olds are living more like 15-year-olds did in previous generations.” Teenagers today are less likely than teens in the 70s, 80s, or 90s to consume alcohol, go on dates, or have sex. As a result, the teen birth rate has been in a steady decline for the last 20 years. Teenagers are now less likely to engage in the risky behaviors that traditionally have kept parents up at night. (Sometimes literally, waiting for the teens to come home!)
However, there’s another side to this.
Today’s teens are also taking longer to get a driver’s license or a job; in other words, they’re taking longer to become independent. This is indicative of a switch to a slow life strategy as explained in the study: “A slow life strategy involves delayed gratification with later reproduction, whereas a fast life strategy involves undertaking reproductive tasks and becoming independent of one’s parents sooner.”
These behaviors, from drinking alcohol to getting a job, may seem completely isolated, but they are actually closely linked:
“Adolescents often use alcohol as a precursor to sexual activity, and alcohol use is related to number of sexual partners…. Driving is related to dating…as it allows adolescents to go on dates without parent chaperones and explore their sexuality away from parental supervision. In general, adolescents must establish independence from their parents to facilitate mating and reproduction…; in modern times independence might involve working…going out without one’s parents, and driving.”
This is extending past the teenage years into adulthood, as more and more people are waiting longer to get married, have children, and settle into long-term employment.
Why Is This Happening?
The study says it’s probably not about homework or extra-curricular activities, which have stayed the same or even declined over the years. One possible contributing factor? The internet.
As we well know, teenagers today spend a lot of time online: 92 percent of them are online every day, and 24 percent are “almost constantly” on the internet. This has most certainly changed dating behavior. Nowadays, half of those ages 13-17 have used social media to flirt or express interest in someone. They stay in close contact with each other online, and perhaps aren’t spending as much time together in person. Dating apps have also made it easier to meet potential partners from the comfort of your living room.
And after spending an average of nine hours per day online, who has time to try that first beer, study for a driving exam, or go on a date?
What Can Parents Do?
Trends like these are more powerful than any individual parent, but we do still have the opportunity to influence our children for the better. Remember, there are some benefits to this trend, and by following guidelines for screen time, today’s children and teens can participate in our modern, technological world and still find time for real-life activities and connections.
This can start by placing trustworthy parental controls on your child’s mobile device. Block dating apps and other unsavory sites to encourage that trend of engaging in less risky behavior, and disable the internet during the times you want your teenager to be present for whatever is happening in real life: sleep, dinner, homework, or a family vacation. Encourage your teenager to get a part-time job or start a small business babysitting or walking dogs, or simply to pursue interests that may lead him or her to a fulfilling career.