Today’s teenagers are taking longer to grow up, study finds

Unlike teenagers of previous decades, today’s teens are living in Peter Pan’s Neverland and are taking longer to grow up. They’re less likely to sneak a drink of alcohol, have sex, ask someone out on a date, explore the world without parents, drive a car, or work an after-school job shift to make money. That’s according to a new study published in Child Development that used government data and time-use studies to analyze survey responses from 8.3 million U.S. teenagers between 1976 and 2016.

The study found that today’s teens are avoiding behavior that was widespread just a few decades before. For example, the number of teens who had ever earned money from working dropped from 76% in the 1970s to just 55% in 2010. The number of eighth graders who had ever tried alcohol dropped by more than half since 1993. And while the majority of high school students (54%) were having sex in 1991, only 41% of teenagers in 2015 said they had lost their virginity.

“The declines in these activities were relatively recent, primarily appearing since 2000… and were considerable,” researchers found. “The decline in adult activities appeared among boys and girls, Whites and Blacks, lower [socioeconomic status] and higher [socioeconomic status] adolescents, in all four regions of the United States, and in rural, urban, and suburban locations.”

Why teens are staying teens

The researchers concluded that because the statistical drops happened across all demographics that race, gender or geographic location is not the primary cause of this extended adolescence. They also ruled out teenagers being busier and having too much schoolwork as a reason because they found that high schoolers in the 2010s spent less time on homework and extracurriculars than they did in the 1990s. So, what’s causing the failure to launch?

The researchers in the study posit a few theories. They believe “greater parental investment and longer life expectancies, encourages long-term development and the postponement of reproduction.” When you can live longer, you don’t have to focus all your energy on your everyday survival — you can delay being an independent adult for a few more years. The researchers also subscribe to the “life history theory” that believes that if you’re exposed to a harsh, unpredictable environment during childhood, you’ll be forced to grow up much quicker. When your family is living comfortably, you’re not under as much pressure to strike out on your own and be exposed to the pleasures and pitfalls of new adult opportunities.

Under these social contexts, it makes sense that researchers found that adult activities became less common in teens when median household income, estimated life expectancy during the year the teen was born, and the percentage of high school graduates enrolling in college were higher.

The researchers recognize, however, that there are limitations with basing broad conclusions on teenagers’s personal survey answers that may not apply to all teens.

The most radical theory the study suggests could be a reason is teens being too busy online to grow up.

“Perhaps teens go out less due to parental restrictions and thus communicate online more,” the study suggests. This theory makes sense when you realize that one of the study’s lead authors, Jean M. Twenge, is also the author of the Atlantic article, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” In that article, Twenge argues that smartphone have a negative influence on today’s millennials’ mental health and are a reason why teen depression and suicide have spiked since 2011. Twenge cites a U.S. government-backed Monitoring the Future survey that found that teens who are glued to their smart screens are more likely to be unhappy.

Under these theories, it’s not that teens are lazier and more boring than the rule-breaking teens depicted in 1980s movies like “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” It’s that they’re too burdened with anxiety and emotional distress to take on new responsibilities, anxieties, and burdens.