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Research: Today’s American Teens Delay Reponsibility Longer Than Ever


“18-year-olds now look like 15-year-olds used to,” Jean Twenge says. Members of Generation Z, born between 1995 and 2012, are less likely to drink alcohol or have sex in high school. But they are also less likely to pursue independent acts of responsibility, like getting a driver’s license or procuring a job while in high school.

Many people in Gen X—and even some among the millennial generation—are rather dumbfounded by these trends. In my home state of Idaho, teens my age could procure a driver’s license at 14, due to the state’s rural, farming nature. There wasn’t a single kid who didn’t look forward to his 14th birthday: it carried with it the prospect of independence, and eventually car ownership.

But the problems and dilemmas my generation faced—surrounding sex and alcohol, driving and recklessness—are not necessarily mirrored in younger generations, if Twenge is to be believed. The new book “iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy – and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood” has a lot of people talking, with good reason. It tries to address both the boons and perils of the smartphone era, considering both the strengths and weaknesses of the young people it’s helped shape.

iGen Has Grown Up In A Different World

Twenge is careful not to make digital media the sole scapegoat for iGen’s “growing-up” problems. When it comes to larger trends toward “safety” and abstaining from “adult” experiences (like car ownership and sex), Twenge suggests that other generational shifts could also be playing a part: today’s teens are growing up in smaller families, she notes, with parents who “nurture them more carefully” and expect them to go to college. Kids often spend their summers focusing on extra-curriculars or internships—not blue-collar or service jobs.

When you add smartphones on top of these larger familial and educational trends, it makes sense that teens are increasingly “staying in” rather than venturing out into the wider world. Social media encourages teens to inhabit a virtual and curated reality, one that needn’t carry them outside their bedrooms. As Twenge puts it, “When the party’s on Snapchat, you don’t have to go out as much.”

Physical Versus Mental Health

It’s worth noting that things like sexting and porn would necessarily give teens some of the rush associated with sex without the attendant perils—and both Twenge’s book and larger research confirms that these habits are more common among America’s young people than ever. By participating in such things, teens are fostering an aversion to commitment and vulnerability that may cause problems in years to come. But are they “safer”? Perhaps, in a way.

That said, whereas physical health may be on the rise among teens in this generation, their mental health has declined. In contributing to rising trends like loneliness, depression, and “FOMO” (fear of missing out), there are few other likely culprits than the rise of Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat. As Twenge wrote for The Atlantic a while back:

Psychologically, however, they are more vulnerable than Millennials were: Rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed since 2011. It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades. Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones.

Growing Up Too Late—Or Too Young?

I remember hearing stories of my great-grandfather—the oldest son in his family—having to irrigate 160 acres of farmland as a boy, when his father would leave to peddle fruit or take odd jobs. He was responsible for the wellbeing of his mother, sister, and all his younger siblings—even as a 10-year-old. My grandfather, meanwhile, fought in World War II when he was still a teenager. He saw close friends and comrades die, many in a single day.

These youths were called to adulthood before their time. They were still young, hopeful, eager to experience the joys and independence of youth. Instead, they faced grueling hardship—even death.

Today, we live with more comfort and less adversity than ever before in human history. That’s a boon in most ways. It’s worth celebrating. But it also means that the hardship and trials older generations faced—trials that built in them virtues like resilience, courage, and dependence—will not automatically be fostered in younger generations unless they purposefully seek them out.

As Petula Dvorak notes in the Washington Post, “It’s not flying down the highway, sneaking out or beer-bonging that gave us backbones. No, the fastest path to independence, resilience, empathy and the thing we all want for our kids — grit — is a job.”

Encourage Your Teens to Leave Home

Can parents encourage their children to have more meaningful, real-time relationships in high school? Although it probably depends on the family and child, it seems more parents should push their kids out the front door and encourage them to spend time with their peers. That can involve dating, but it should more widely involve cultivating friendships outside the smartphone. Going to the movies, having pizza nights, hanging out after Friday night football games: these are part of the high school experience (at least, they used to be). And they needn’t be filled with sex, drugs, or smoking to be fun or important. Young people can still be safe and avoid the mental pitfalls and depression fostered by obsessive and incessant time online.

This brave new digital world we live in is full of pitfalls and snares we wouldn’t have imagined 50 years ago. It’s created a mysterious—often dangerous—terrain our young people now have to navigate. But they aren’t alone. And perhaps they need to be reminded of that. By pushing their teens into the real world, parents aren’t encouraging them to be reckless. But they are encouraging them to take risks, and that’s important. That’s part of growing up.