Study: Today's teens are growing up … slower

Thursday, September 21, 2017
Michael F. Haverluck (

high school students studyingEven though the Internet and mobile devices have subjected many teens to mature content earlier than their parents would like, a recent study found that teens are not growing up as quickly as their parents did a generation ago – waiting longer today to date, drive, work, drink and have sex than teens in the 1970s.

The new study was published in the journal, Child Development, and shows the results from 8.44 million American teens between the ages of 13 and 19 from 1976 to 2016. Researchers noted that the trend of teens not wanting to grow up as fast as they used to is not due to factors some might think.

“[F]ewer adolescents in recent years engaged in adult activities such as having sex, dating, drinking alcohol, working for pay, going out without their parents, and driving – suggesting a slow life strategy,” the study's abstract reads’. “The trends are unlikely to be due to homework and extracurricular time – which stayed steady or declined, and may or may not be linked to increased Internet use.”

The ‘good old days’ not so good

What used to be the overwhelming majority in their parents’ or grandparents’ generations is no longer the case for teens today, and the results appear to be constant across geographic, socioeconomic and racial lines – whether they lived in urban, rural or suburban regions in the United States.

“[T]eenagers are increasingly delaying activities that had long been seen as rites of passage into adulthood,” The Washington Post reported. “[T]he percentage of adolescents in the United States who have a driver’s license, who have tried alcohol, who date and who work for pay has plummeted since 1976, with the most precipitous decreases in the past decade.”

Even though more than half of teens continue to engage in the aforementioned adult activities, there has been a substantial decline in each of the majorities.

“Between 1976 and 1979, 86 percent of high school seniors had gone on a date; between 2010 and 2015, only 63 percent had, the study found,” the Post revealed from the study. “During the same period, the portion that had ever earned money from working plunged from 76 percent to 55 percent. And the portion that had tried alcohol plummeted from 93 percent between 1976 and 1979 to 67 percent between 2010 and 2016.”

Sexual activity amongst teens has also seen a considerable decline over the past few decades.

“The portion of high school students who’d had sex fell from 54 percent in 1991 to 41 percent in 2015, according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” the Post’s Tara Bahrampour informed.

What it all means

Most conservatives – especially biblically minded Christians – believe that putting off relationships, work, driving and other adult activities are a good thing because it helps keep them out of trouble to some extent, but some concerns are brought up.

“Today’s teenagers don’t feel the pressure to get married and get jobs quickly because the current social expectation is that when they graduate high school, they go to college for four years or more,” TheBlaze reported. “That means true, independent adulthood might not set in until their mid-to-late 20s.”

Factors that could have likely spurred the declining trend in adult activity were also offered.

“It’s simple: a harsher and more unpredictable environment speeds up the rate at which teens develop into adults, while a more prosperous and secure environment slows the rate down,” TheBlaze’s Aaron Colen reasoned. “When you’re not in survival mode, and life expectancy is higher, you don’t have to worry so much about hurrying to start a family or get a job.”

Understanding the trend …

Adolescent psychiatrist and author Daniel Siegel argues that adolescents are simply “remodeling” their brains to adapt to a society and culture that has seen significant changes since the 19th century.

 “In a culture that says, ‘Okay, you’re going to go to high school, go to college, go to graduate school and then get an internship, and you’re not going to really be responsible till your late 20s,’ well then, the brain will respond accordingly,” Siegel explained, according to the Post.

He says teens are now more serious about staying away from bad decisions that could end up ruining their lives.

“[Among teenagers now,] there is a feeling you’re getting of, ‘Wow, the world is pretty serious, so why would I rush to immerse myself? … Why don’t I stay with my friends and away from anything that has heavy consequences, like pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases?’” he continued.

Council on Contemporary Families Director of Research Stephanie Coontz stresses that teens are now more conscious about the consequences of their actions.

“They’re starting to realize, wow, they really do have to worry about their résumés,” Coontz argued, according to the Post. “They come in without the kind of reckless disregard of consequence that a more confident generation of kids had, who said, ‘I’ll drop out of school and join the peace movement …’”

She said that teenagers can no longer afford to have the kind of nonchalance previous generations often had because today, fewer career paths are available to those who do not earn a college degree.

“They’re absorbing the same kind of anxiety about the future that their parents have for them,” Coontz insisted.

Parent’s perspective

As a parent, TheBlaze’s Colen pondered the pros and cons about teens postponing certain things until a later age.

“Is it good or bad that children are growing up more slowly?” he posed. “It’s a little bit of both. As a father, I’m (selfishly) encouraged that kids are waiting longer to have sex or drink. It’s dangerous for a person to be exposed to those things before they’re equipped to handle them responsibly. But, it’s not a good trend for teenagers to be less independent and self-sufficient. Teenagers should learn the responsibility of holding down a job. They should learn how to drive so they don’t have to rely on friends or parents to get somewhere.”

Colen maintained that delaying certain responsibilities can detrimentally make youth too dependent and end up hurting them in their early adulthood.

“Adolescents need to mature into adulthood, even when they’re not forced to, so they can contribute to the world and be prepared to handle adversity,” the conservative journalist and dad argued. “Even colleges, where some people will spend much of their 20s, are becoming sheltered spaces that prevent exposure to the realities of the world.”

He said that youth should be prepared to live in a world that is not as easy and forgiving as the one in which they were raised.

“We’re blessed to live in a time of prosperity and security – when we have everything we need so that daily survival is something we take for granted,” Colen pointed out. “But that security is tenuous. It’s not guaranteed to last forever, and our parents and grandparents can tell us about times when everything was great, until suddenly it wasn’t.”

He ended by giving a piece of advice to parents.

“In order for America to remain strong and to navigate the threats and challenges of our time, we can’t become soft and complacent,” Colen warned. “It’s up to parents, teachers and role models of all kinds to intentionally lead the next generation into adulthood at a reasonable, but expeditious pace. Don’t stall. They might not need it now, but when they do need it – they’ll be thankful someone pushed them forward.”

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