Eye of the beholder here, I suppose. Another possible headline for this data is “America’s high-school seniors more wholesome than ever.” Or, if you prefer, “America’s high-school seniors developing more slowly than ever.”
It comes from a study suggesting that American teens are undergoing “extended adolescence,” delaying rites of passage like driving and dating that used to come much sooner decades ago. It’s true, in some ways kids are less mature now. In other ways, maybe more. From WaPo’s story on the study:
More from Sci Am:
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.
What’s causing the social retardation? More extracurriculars, maybe? Nope — WaPo says today’s teens don’t do more on average than they did in the 90s. The economy’s playing a part, of course, as the sharp drop in paid work around the time of the 2008 financial crisis hints, but that doesn’t explain everything either. The researchers’ theory is that this is an across-the-board developmental reaction to a higher standard of living. Simply put, you’ll grow up faster if you need to grow up faster — and if you don’t, you won’t. When putting food on the table is difficult and you know you’ll have to start earning a living when you graduate from high school, you’re apt to accelerate towards adulthood and go through your rites of passage sooner. As families have gotten smaller, though, and college has become a prerequisite for any upwardly mobile young American, “adulthood” tends not to begin until 22 or even later if you’re aiming at postgrad education. Kids on that track tend to slow down. Voila, delayed development.
But as I say, this is eye-of-the-beholder territory. One inconvenient fact about “delayed development” is that college enrollment has declined over the last five years, partly due to the economy but also because increasingly college is seen as not worth the exorbitant cost to less wealthy kids. You’d expect to see some uptick in the most recent years of the graph above if teens are being forced to grow up faster lately, but you don’t. An obvious counter-theory (or companion theory, since they’re not mutually exclusive) is that the Internet and the smartphone boom are leading to greater social isolation, which is driving up the age at which people undergo rites of passage. If you can socialize virtually, you’ll feel less pressure to do it in reality. If you can indulge sexually in Internet pornography, you’ll feel less pressure to date. If you can access limitless entertainment from your TV via streaming services and video games, the comparative draw of attractions outside the house will decline. The researchers note that the Internet surely is a factor but that the trends in the graph up top began before it had become widely available to the population. Fair enough, but it seems likely to me to be the prime explanation even if it’s not the sole explanation. (The inflection point seems to come around 1997 as the Internet began to catch on.) It’s hard not to notice that the steepest decline has come over the past decade, which perfectly coincides with the smartphone explosion. Isolation has got to be key here.