It’s a widely-held belief that kids keep growing up faster and faster. But a new study shows it’s actually the opposite.
It turns out that kids today (in the 2010s) are pursuing traditional rites of adulthood– i.e. drinking alcohol, having sex, working or driving – less so than teens of decades past, according to a study published this week in Child Development. What’s more: These changes didn’t happen in a vacuum. They were found across gender, race/ethnicity and socioeconomic status, among other demographic groups.
“In terms of adult activities, 18-year-olds now look like 15-year-olds once did,” lead study author Jean M. Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, said in a statement.
Researchers took into account seven surveys of 8.3 million people for their analysis. All the people studied, from 1976 to 2016, were between the ages of 13 to 19 years old. The surveys correlated with the U.S. teen population when it came to factors like gender, socioeconomic status and race/ethnicity.
A more granular look at the data found 86 percent of high school seniors had been on a date between 1976 and 1979, but that declined to 63 percent between 2010 and 2015, reports The Washington Post. This matched up with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, which found high school students who had sex dipped to 41 percent in 2015, a 13 percentage point decline from 1991.
Something else that came out of the study: Growing up in a world with longer life expectancies and where women gave birth later, teens weren’t as likely to take part in these adult activities.
“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 [communicable diseases] were lower, consistent with life history theory,” according to the study abstract.
Survey questions included how teens spent their time, allowing researchers the ability to crosscheck responses from teens in the 2010s to the 2000s, 1990s and so on.
Of course, the ultimate question – why is this happening? – is less clear than the definitive data. Authors point out this dip in development speed could be associated with how much time teens are online, as that exposure ticked up notably. But the researchers say the drop in adult activities can’t be explained by time spent on homework or extracurricular activities, because time on those activities dropped among eighth and tenth graders and was steady for twelfth graders and college students.
And according to an adolescent psychiatrist, it tracks that teens brains would change along with cultural shifts.
“In a culture that says, ‘Okay, you’re going to go to high school, go to college, go to graduate school, and then get an internship, and you’re not going to really be responsible till your late 20s,’ well then the brain will respond accordingly,” Dr. Daniel Siegel told The Washington Post.