Surprising or not? Teens are growing up more slowly today than they did in past decades

This new paper at first surprised me – we know the average age of the menarche has become younger the past century – and didn’t surprise me – we are on average longer ‘young’ as we seem to wait longer to become an adult. So, for me it seems to depend on how you define growing up. Let’s take a look (or if you want a spoiler: it’s the latter).

From the press release:

Many people believe that teenagers today grow up faster than they used to, while others argue that today’s youth are growing up more slowly, perhaps due to overprotection by their parents. A new study explored this issue by examining how often teens in recent years (compared to teens in previous decades) engaged in adult activities such as drinking alcohol, working, driving, or having sex. The study found that today’s adolescents are less likely than their predecessors to take part in activities typically undertaken by adults.

Conducted by researchers at San Diego State University and Bryn Mawr College, the study is published in the journal Child Development.

“The developmental trajectory of adolescence has slowed, with teens growing up more slowly than they used to,” explains Jean M. Twenge, professor of psychology at San Diego State University and the lead author on the study. “In terms of adult activities, 18-year-olds now look like 15-year-olds once did.”

The researchers examined how often teenagers engaged in activities that adults do and that children don’t, including dating, working for pay, going out without parents, driving, and having sex. They analyzed seven large surveys of 8.3 million 13- to 19-year-olds between 1976 and 2016. The surveys were nationally representative, reflecting the population of U.S. teens in terms of gender, race/ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and geographic region. In the surveys, teens were asked how they used their time, including their engagement in one or more adult activities, allowing researchers to compare teens in the 2010s to teens in the 2000s, 1990s, 1980s, and 1970s. The researchers also examined how changes in family size, life expectancy, education, and the economy may have influenced the speed at which teens take on adult activities.

The study found that adolescents in the 2010s are less likely to work for pay, drive, date, drink alcohol, go out without their parents, and have sex than adolescents in previous decades. The trend appeared across demographic groups (including gender, race/ethnicity, socioeconomic status, region of the country, and urban/rural location), suggesting a broad-based cultural shift. The bottom line, the researchers concluded: Today’s teens are growing up more slowly than their counterparts from previous decades.

The trend toward engaging in fewer adult activities cannot be explained by time spent on homework or extracurricular activities, the researchers say, because time doing those activities decreased among eighth and tenth graders and was steady among twelfth graders and college students. The authors note that the decline may be linked to the time teens spend online, which increased markedly.

The context also mattered, with teens less likely to engage in adult activities during time periods in which milestones in life occurred later, including when people had longer life expectancies, women gave birth at later ages, and people completed education later. Adult activities were also less common during time periods when families had fewer children and higher median income, and when fewer people died of communicable diseases.

“Our study suggests that teens today are taking longer to embrace both adult responsibilities (such as driving and working) and adult pleasures (such as sex and alcohol),” notes Heejung Park, assistant professor of psychology at Bryn Mawr College, who coauthored the study. “These trends are neither good nor bad, but reflect the current U.S. cultural climate.”

Abstract of the study:

The social and historical contexts may influence the speed of development. In seven large, nationally representative surveys of U.S. adolescents 1976–2016 (= 8.44 million, ages 13–19), fewer 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. Adult activities were less common when median income, life expectancy, college enrollment, and age at first birth were higher and family size and pathogen prevalence were lower, consistent with life history theory. 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.

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