Teenagers these days. They’re growing up so slowly. They’re less likely to drink alcohol or smoke than teenagers in previous generations. Apparently, they’re also less likely to be having sex.
Everyone should be pretty happy with that, right? Well…
There’s been a lot of discussion about this trend recently, with a wide-ranging study in the US coming up with some startling findings.
Teenagers are doing almost everything associated with adulthood – drinking alcohol, having sex, going out without their parents, driving a car, getting a part-time job – at a later age. The teen pregnancy rate has hit an all-time low.
It’s an international trend. In the UK, there’s been a noticeable decrease in the number of teens drinking, smoking, taking drugs and getting pregnant. In Australia, statistics released earlier this year showed that 98 per cent of teenagers had never smoked. Only 18 per cent of teenagers drank alcohol in 2016, compared to 28 per cent in 2013.
So what’s going on? Are teenagers today more virtuous, because their parents have done such a good job of teaching them self-control? Have teens become more boring, because they’re focusing so hard on getting good marks at school? Or are they maybe just too busy checking their phones to actually do anything?
Jean Twenge, professor of psychology at San Diego State University, has another theory. Teenagers today are growing up with a “slow life strategy”.
Less drinking, less sex, less going out. That’s a good thing, right?
Parents have fewer children, and they’re devoting more time to each one. Back when parents had four or more kids, and housework was more arduous, they simply didn’t have the time to focus on their children. Kids grew up faster because they had to.
What this means is that childhood is actually lasting longer than it used to, despite kids hitting puberty at an earlier age.
So is this good news or bad news?
Child and adolescent psychologist Dr Michael Carr-Gregg says teenage drinking has been on the decline in Australia for some time now, and that’s “incredibly welcome”.
“Alcohol impacts adversely on teenage brain development but it’s also a disinhibitor,” he explains to Mamamia. “A unique characteristic of adolescents is an inability to predict the consequences of their actions. That’s made even more so by alcohol. Hopefully that will translate to less risky behaviour in general.”
He also says that a reduction in sexually transmitted infections would be a good thing.
“If this data is true, then we should see a decline in chlamydia, for example, which has been on the rise lately.”
However, Dr Carr-Gregg is concerned that many teenagers these days are “overly supervised” by their parents. He’s concerned that too many teens are getting their “thrills and spills” in their own bedrooms, from either social media or their Xbox, PlayStation or Wii.
Listen: We talk all things parenting in This Glorious Mess. Post continues after audio.
“Parents are actually quite happy to let their kid be babysat by an electronic machine rather than encourage them to go outside because they have a deep-seated fear that it’s actually more scary than it is.”
But he says that the more time teens spend on Instagram or Snapchat, the more likely they are to self-objectify.
“I think the body image stuff is a profound worry, and there’s a definite connection between body image and social media.”
Dr Carr-Gregg believes parents need to encourage their kids to take control of their passions, whether that be music, dance, drama or sport.
“That’s a safe environment,” he says. “They’re going to take healthy risks, they’ll learn who they are, they’ll form good relationships with peers with similar attitudes, values and beliefs.
“There’s a huge distinction between healthy risks and unhealthy risks.”