Page last updated:October 18, 2017

The decline in adult activities among US adolescents

A study published in the journal Child Development highlights that in seven large, nationally representative surveys of US adolescents 1976–2016 (N = 8.44 million, ages 13–19), fewer adolescents in recent years engaged in adult activities such as having sex, dating, drinking alcohol, working for pay, going out without their parents, and driving, suggesting a slow life strategy. Adult activities were less common when median income, life expectancy, college enrolment, and age at first birth were higher and family size and pathogen prevalence were lower, consistent with life history theory. The authors state that the trends are unlikely to be due to homework and extracurricular time, which stayed steady or declined, and may or may not be linked to increased Internet use.

The declines in adult activities appeared across racial, geographic and socioeconomic lines and in rural, urban and suburban areas. Between 1976 and 1979, 86% of high school seniors had gone on a date; between 2010 and 2015, only 63% had. During the same period, the portion that had ever earned money from working fell from 76% to 55%. And the portion that had tried alcohol declined from 93% to 67% between 2010 and 2016. According to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, teens have also reported a steady decline in sexual activity in recent decades. The portion of high school students who’d had sex fell from 54% in 1991 to 41% in 2015.

Lead author Jean Twenge commented that according to evolutionary-psychology theory, a person’s ‘life strategy’ slows down or speeds up depending on the person’s surroundings, exposure to a ‘harsh and unpredictable’ environment leads to faster development, while a more resource-rich and secure environment has the opposite effect. But the United States is shifting more toward the slower model, and the change is apparent across the socioeconomic spectrum. “Even in families whose parents didn’t have a college education . . . families are smaller, and the idea that children need to be carefully nurtured has really sunk in,” Twenge added.

Source: The decline in adult activities among US adolescents, 1976–2016. Jean M. Twenge, Heejung Park. Child Development, first published: 18 September 2017.

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