A new study says teens are slowing down when it comes to trying activities normally reserved for adults, from driving, dating and getting jobs to drinking alcohol and having sex. And while some of that seems to be good news, some researchers warn those teens may also be slower to take on responsibility and independence.
Researchers decided to look at dueling concepts of today's adolescents and see if they could tease out who's wrong or right: Some believe teenagers are growing up faster than in the past, anxious to step into adulthood as quickly as possible, including risky behaviors. Others say teens are maturing more slowly, possibly because they've been overprotected and fear failure.
The study's conclusion, recently published in the journal Child Development, is that teens are growing up more slowly than they used to and in terms of adult activities, today's 18-year olds look like 15-year-olds from days past, said lead author Jean M. Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State.
According to data spanning 40 years starting in 1976, adolescents in 2010 were less likely to have a paying job, drive, date, drink, go out without their parents or have sex, compared to teens of previous decades. Because that held true across demographic groups, Twenge said it suggests a cultural shift.
It's not clear if today's adolescents are more or less mature than those in the past, said Twenge. "Is it more or less mature to have sex as a teen? It's neither, really. Instead, it's more accurate to say that teens are taking longer to engage in both the responsibilities and the pleasures of adulthood."
When we sought examples of teens delaying driving and dating, it had to look no further than its own staffers' families.
Faith Morgenegg, daughter of Ryan Morgenegg, said she's not nervous about being different when it comes to learning to drive. Although most of her friends are flocking to driver's ed, the West Jordan 15-year-old says she has little interest in getting behind the wheel.
"I have never really been too excited about getting my license. I probably won't get one until I'm older — maybe 18 or so," she said, adding she doesn't want to have to worry about all the responsibilities that go with having a driver's license, from car insurance to memorizing and obeying the rules of the road to keeping the oil changed.
Plus, there's the "possibility of hurting somebody if you ran into them. I don't want to be responsible right now for things that could possibly be very damaging," she said.
Nor is she "that excited" about dating. The West Jordan sophomore said she finds the idea of having to meet people and go out and do activities nerve-wracking. Still, she admits she's "probably unusual. Most of my friends are super-excited about dating and driving and things like that."
Sara Israelsen-Hartley's brother, Jared Israelsen, knows how Morgenegg feels.
He is far more excited about studying physics than he is about either dating or driving. But Israelsen, 18, said part of his decision was pragmatic. "I was about five minutes' walking distance from my high school, so it was never a problem getting there. And I'm not a very social person, so I had no need to drive to a friend's house and hang out."
Given the expense of running and maintaining a car and the fact that his parents were willing to drive him if he needed to go someplace, he said he decided, "Why bother?"
He said when he turns 19 and can get a license without taking driver's ed, which would have taken time away from his school studies and other things he wanted to do, "I will do it then. I know how to drive."
Dating has never been his priority, either, though he went to dances in high school. Israelsen describes himself as a mature young man who was more focused on what he needs to do to succeed.
Asked if kids are growing up too fast or two slow, he doesn't hesitate. "I think they're probably growing up too fast. I've always considered myself pretty mature and that leads me to think that kids my age are pretty immature."
The researchers used data from seven surveys of 8.3 million teenagers, nationally representative on gender, race, socioeconomics and region of residence. Using earlier studies, they asked teens how they used their time, which let researchers compare when and how teens did different things in the context of changing family size, life expectancy, the economy and other circumstances of a specific decade.
The researchers wrote that the change is not just a result of today's teens spending more time at school-related activities or doing homework. Those school activities have declined among eighth- and 10th -graders and been flat for seniors and college students.
Twenge said families are showing "slow life strategies," which she describes as "more common at times when people live longer, have fewer children and are healthier and safer. It's a strategy of having fewer children and nurturing them more carefully."
She said she calls the generation born after 1995 iGen, a nod to the fact that they are technology natives growing up with the internet, iPhones and iPads. She figures that's part of the reason they are different than their predecessors.
"As high school seniors, iGen teens are less likely than previous generations were to have their driver's license, to have a paid job, to go out without their parents, to date, to have sex, and to drink alcohol. As a result, they are safer and don't grow up before they are ready, but they may go to university or into their first jobs with less experience with independence. This seems to have occurred because we live longer, have fewer children, and expect education to last longer. The entire developmental pathway has slowed down," said Twenge, author of "iGen: Why Today's Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy — and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood."
Some of the trends researchers identified, like eschewing alcohol while young, "are clearly good," Twenge added. "But most don't fit so easily into 'bad' or 'good,'" including driving and working.
Because dating, working, driving and the other activities involve going places, some have theorized that smartphones initiated the change. While they may contribute, Twenge said, they didn't cause it as the trend began a decade before (that technology) even existed. However, "they may have helped accelerate the trends in the last 10 years."
Risk-taking has decreased over several decades, said Stephanie Coontz, director of research and public education for the Council on Contemporary Families and author of "The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap."
Youths may be going slower because mistakes are too costly, she said. "The route to a successful adulthood has gotten longer and narrower. It used to be that you could drop out of college and still find a decent job, or be pretty confident about getting back in if you screwed up for a semester or just wanted to take time off. Starting with the zero-tolerance rules in elementary school and going up the line, there are fewer second chances, more hoops you'd better jump through if you want to get into a good school, and more penalties for not getting into a good school or developing a good-looking resume."
Coontz said she's not surprised that parents are "increasingly anxious — possibly overly so, but with some justification — about whether their kids will be able to meet the American Dream of doing better than their parents and seeing substantial improvement over their lifetime." She notes studies showing young people earn less as they get jobs compared to previous generations, after adjusting for inflation. "So kids —especially middle-class kids" may be absorbing their parents' anxiety that they not make mistakes as they build resumes "that will give them an edge in what seems like an increasingly competitive world."
Larry Nelson, a professor in Brigham Young University's School of Family Life, studies transitions into adulthood, mainly among emerging adults. He thinks the behaviors noted in the study could be explained a number of ways — and probably not the same for all of the adolescents.
Driving might be delayed over safety concerns, or because family finances are tight and that limits access to cars and time to get a license. Plus, lots of young people have good access to other modes of transportation.
One-on-one dating has been in decline for years; teens often interact socially through "hanging-out behaviors," which the study didn't assess, he said.
As for work, Nelson said many youths are engaged in more community service and volunteer work. "One explanation for that is colleges are looking for hours spent doing that. That's really important. So a lot are doing unpaid internships and volunteer experiences which might offset some of the paid work we saw in the (study)."
Like Twenge, Nelson sees a potential dark side to technology and the time spent on media that parents and teens should ponder. He notes a recent study that also showed young adult men are having less sex. The study attributed it to easy access to and normalization of pornography, which allows a simulated sexual experience within the anonymity and privacy of one's home.
Coontz speculates there may be less to rebel against as parent-child relations are closer than in the past, "so many kids feel less need to rebel or experiment with fruit that is no longer forbidden as much as it is thoroughly explained and discussed."
When this batch of adolescents finish school and get a job, Coontz said we might see more experimentation. Or not. "The increasing tolerance for moderate use may be producing a phenomenon we have long seen in many European countries. Kids whose parents accept a certain amount of sex or alcohol use are far less likely to binge on either.
The question, for Coontz, is what's positive, reflecting maturity and stronger parent-child relationships, and what's lack of confidence or outright fear.
"Yet another factor is that there are other ways to take risks that are more accessible to many teens than in the past — rock climbing, hiking, kayaking, etc. So it's interesting, and we'll have to follow what happens as these folks get older, but I wouldn't make too much of for either good or bad," she said.
However teens and emerging adults decide to spend their time, it matters, Nelson said. Those years through the late 20s "have a potential like never before for young people to flourish or flounder."
Nelson and a colleague, Laura Padilla-Walker, have been editing a book that examines flourishing behaviors in the third decade of life, he said. "There are a lot of young people using this time in very positive ways — who choose to use this time for good, to prepare for future success and future roles in families and communities."
But he warns that delaying taking on adult roles and responsibilities also creates a potential to flounder, "to engage in activities that don't develop skills, attributes or abilities for self-improvement or to prepare them for adult roles. If young people spend an entire decade of their life that way, if by the time they are in their late 20s, almost one-third of their life has been made up of selfish and hedonistic pursuits, then I think we have concerns."
Parents need to keep this in mind, he added: "The story is telling us that they're spending less time engaged in some activities. That time is going somewhere."