Especially now, with society’s deepest depravities freely available online, youngsters seem to grow up quickly: barreling toward adulthood, iPhone in hand, while they Snap Chat racy photos along the way.
But new research suggests otherwise.
An analysis by researchers at San Diego State University and Bryn Mawr College reports that today’s teenagers are less likely to engage in adult activities like having sex and drinking alcohol than teens from older generations.
The review, published today in the journal Child Development, looked at data from seven national surveys conducted between 1976 and 2016, including those issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health. Together, the surveys included over eight million 13- to 19-year-olds from varying racial, economic and regional backgrounds. Participants were asked a variety of questions about how the they spent their time outside of school and responses were tracked over time.
Beyond just a drop in alcohol use and sexual activity, the study authors found that since around 2000, teens have become considerably less likely to drive, have an after-school job and date. By the early 2010s, it also appeared that 12th graders were going out far less frequently than 8th graders did in the 1990s. In 1991 54 percent of high schoolers reported having had sex at least once; in 2015 the number was down to 41 percent. What’s more, the decline in adult activity was consistent across all populations, and not influenced by race, gender or location. “I’ve seen so many articles in which experts said they didn’t know why the teen pregnancy rate was going down or opining that teens were behaving in a more virtuous way…or that they were lazy because fewer were working,” recalls Jean Twenge, professor of psychology at San Diego State and the lead author on the study. “Our results show that it’s probably not that today’s teens are more virtuous, or more lazy—it’s just that they’re less likely to do adult things.” She adds that in terms of adult behaviors, 18-year-olds now look like 15-year-olds of the past.
Twenge and her co-author, Heejung Park, assistant professor of psychology at Bryn Mawr College, initially thought the findings meant teens today are doing more homework or engaged in more extracurricular activities. Yet their data suggest the frequency of these activities has been stable for years, if not on a slight decline.
The fact teens (not unlike many adults) are glued to their computers and smartphones for much of the day may have contributed to the results the authors suggest. Perhaps their socializing and more salacious interests have simply gone digital via texting, sexting and online pornography. (Today’s teens watch more porn than their predecessors.) Yet virtual vice isn’t the whole story because the dip in adult activities began before internet usage became common.
The more likely explanation for this new extended adolescence its relationship to affluence. The analysis found adolescents were more likely to take part in adult activities if they came from larger families or those with lower incomes. This mirrors so-called “life history theory,” the idea exposure to an unpredictable, impoverished environment as a kid leads to faster development whereas children who grow up in a stable environment with more resources tend to have a slower developmental course.
In families with means there is often more anticipation of years of schooling and career before one necessarily has to “grow up”—there’s plenty of time for that later. As Twenge and Park conclude, despite growing income disparities, a significant percentage of the U.S. population has on average become more affluent over the past few decades and are living longer. As a result, people are waiting longer to get married and have children. We’re also seeing a higher parental investment in fewer children—or, in the parlance of our times, more “helicopter parenting.”
This concept of extended adolescence is not new. It was first made famous by psychologist Erik Erikson, who in his theory on the different stages of human development termed this stage a “psychosocial moratorium.” Yet many child psychologists believe today’s children seem to be idling in this hiatus period more so than ever before. “I'm keenly aware of the shift, as I often see adolescents presenting with some of the same complaints as college graduates,” says Columbia University psychiatrist Mirjana Domakonda, who was not involved in the new study. “Twenty-five is the new 18, and delayed adolescence is no longer a theory, but a reality. In some ways, we’re all in a ‘psychosocial moratorium,’ experimenting with a society where swipes constitute dating and likes are the equivalent of conversation.”
Some experts caution against reading too much into the new findings, because asking a bunch of teenagers to accurately recount their behavior has its obvious statistical flaws. “The new work highlights how vital it is to do careful, methodologically rigorous research,” says Robert Findling, director of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins Medicine who also did not take part in the new research. “Working from impressions, opinions or individual experiences can lead to spurious conclusions.”
But presuming some degree of truth to the new findings, what might postponing adulthood mean for society? Are we headed toward a culture of helpless, coddled teenagers unwilling to work? Or given that we’re living so much longer than past generations, maybe there’s nothing wrong with a few extra years of innocence? Twenge sees both upsides and downsides: “It's great to protect young teens, but parents should realize that older teens need some experience with independence before they go to college or start working.”
Domakonda adds that although parents can play a role in indulging extended youth, they are not the root cause. “Most are responding to their own anxieties about the new norm,” she says. “They recognize that now, in order for their children to succeed, they can’t simply get a job at the local factory, but may be faced with 10-plus years of postgraduate education and crippling student debt.”
She feels that instead of pushing young adults to mature faster, we should embrace the cultural shift and develop ways to both meet the psychological needs of modern teens while also setting them up for future success. Domakonda suggests one such strategy might be expanding mental health services for adolescents, particularly because 75 percent of major mental illnesses emerge by the mid-20s. She also feels we should stop arbitrarily defining 18 as the age of adulthood and recognize that psychosocial development occurs differently in different people. “Researchers need to recognize that emerging adults are a unique developmental cohort and stop lumping them in the 18- to 65-year-old category for studies of adults,” she says. “That will help us learn about their specific needs so we may develop targeted prevention and treatment strategies [for mental illness]
Time will tell how extended adolescence influences American culture and character. But in the words of basketball legend Charles Barkley, there is one clear upside: “Kids are great. It’s a shame they have to grow up to be regular people and come to the games and call you names.”
Note: This story was updated to correct Mirjana Domakonda's job title.