Who Wants To Be an Adult? Teens Taking Their Time Growing Up
Adolescents are taking longer to become adults than previous generations, according to a new study that cites the rise of smartphones, safer environments and even a declining birthrate as factors.
Mid- to late-teens are delaying the classic milestones of adulthood, namely working, going out without their parents, driving, dating, having sex, and drinking alcohol, according to four decades of surveys reviewed for the study, led by San Diego State University professor of psychology Jean M. Twenge.
Today's 18-year-olds exhibit similar milestone behaviors as did 15-year-olds in the late 1970s, Twenge said. Moreover, they're mostly doing this voluntarily -- parents aren't imposing this delayed independence.
The spread of smartphones, which allow teens to socialize from the safety of their homes, is part of the explanation, said Twenge. The author of "Generation Me," she has released a new book on the generation born after 1995 called "iGen: Why Today's Super-Connected Kids are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy -- and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood."
But while smartphones and social media enable these trends, Twenge says it's not the whole explanation. Advances in safety and a declining rate of childbirth drive this process. When parents have fewer children and expect them to grow up, they will expend more care on them.
The study was published Tuesday in the journal Child Development. Twenge was the lead author, and Heejung Park of Bryn Mawr College was co-author. They drew their conclusions from seven surveys of 8.3 million 13- to 19-year-olds between 1976 and 2016.
Twenge said an evolutionary explanation called life history theory appears to be behind the trend. It classifies the maturation of species into "fast" and "slow" strategies.
Fast strategies involve producing prolific amounts of offspring with minimal care. Spawning fish and lobsters are examples. Very high death rates are acceptable, because only a tiny fraction need to survive to perpetuate the species.
Humans, with many years of care and training required for independence, represent the slow strategy. Modern society makes the slow strategy more feasible than before, Twenge said.
Life in the Slow Lane
"Life history theory makes the case that a slow life strategy is going to be more likely in a safe environment, where people have fewer children and people live longer, and expect their kids to start their own families later, and to have their education last longer," Twenge said. "And that's a pretty good description of today's environment."
Meanwhile, Twenge has been getting a lot of attention for her latest book, some of it disapproving. A review on NPR called it a "cocktail of exaggeration and alarmism." Its conclusions on smartphone use were criticized in the Houston Chronicle by Christopher Ferguson, a psychology professor at Stetson University.
A Wall Street Journal review was more positive, describing the book as persuasive.
The study itself got generally favorable comments from Laurence Steinberg, an expert on adolescent development. Steinberg said he agreed that teens are taking longer to develop the habits of independent adults.
"My quick take on this is that it's very interesting, although it isn't clear what the right interpretation is," said Steinberg, a professor of psychology at Temple University and author of "Age of Opportunity: Lessons From the New Science of Adolescence."
"Some of these trends may be influencing each other -- for instance, driving and drinking are activities that are themselves linked to working (which generates income that is used to pay for alcohol and expenses), and dating or going out with friends (which may require driving and is often associated with drinking)," Steinberg said by email.
"Certainly these trends are consistent with other data on the delayed entrance of young people into adult roles, like marriage, childbearing, entrance into the full time labor force, establishing a separate residence, and attaining economic independence," he said.
"So I think it is reasonable to view these findings as consistent with the view that adolescence is lasting longer than it has before -- something I note in 'Age of Opportunity.'"
Steinberg said he was not sure the "life history theory" explanation was correct.
"I'd like to see some international data to see whether this is an American phenomenon or something more universal," he said.
A Net Good?
It's also possible that increasingly protective "helicopter parents" could be restricting their children's actions, Steinberg said, making it more difficult for them to get out of the house.
"But I'd be careful to avoid interpretations that invoke images of today's young people as being less mature or more childlike," he said.
Twenge said the adolescent surveys indicate that since children actually have fewer major fights with their parents, overly protective parents aren't the cause of these changes.
"I agree with Dr. Steinberg that it's not correct to say that today's teens are less mature," she said. "For example, is it more or less mature to have sex during high school? Is it more or less mature to drink alcohol as a teen? It's neither. These trends are not about maturity or immaturity, but about taking longer to engage in adult activities."
"Overall, I think these trends are a net good," she said. "However, parents also need to recognize that older teens in particular need more experience with independence if they're going to be successful college students and workers."
Brent Crandal, a clinical psychologist at Rady Children's Hospital, said the study provides useful insights.
"These are pretty strong findings," Crandal said. "They're found in several different data sets with more than 1 million participants. The trend identified shouldn't be ignored."
Making the same point as Twenge, Crandal also said the results aren't good or bad.
"It's just that development is happening over a longer course of time," Crandal said.
© 2017 San Diego Union-Tribune under contract with NewsEdge/Acquire Media. All rights reserved.
Posted: 2017-09-25 @ 11:08am PT
It's because parents baby their kids and the kids don't go out and experience the world like they used to on their own.