According to a new study, teen behavior has changed—and they may be acting less like "grown-ups" than this age group used to. 

By Zara Husaini Hanawalt
September 25, 2017
Teen behaviors
Credit: Rock and Wasp/Shutterstock

We know that adults are getting married, buying homes and having babies later in life than they have in previous generations—are teens delaying life's benchmarks in a similar fashion?

According to new research, they just might be. While we've all bemoaned how quickly our kids seem to be growing up, a study published in Child Development suggests that teens are shying away from "adult-like" behaviors. They are reportedly less likely to have driver's licenses, work paying jobs, try alcohol or have sex than teens in previous generations.

That's not to say teenagers aren't drinking or having sex at all. In fact, more than half of all teens appearing to be exhibiting these adult behaviors, but the rates are lower than they once were. While 86 percent of high school students had been on a date between 1976 and 1979, just 63 percent had between 2010 and 2015, for example. Only 55 percent of high school students had ever worked for money (as compared 76 percent in the '70s) and just 67 percent had sampled alcohol (down from 93 percent).

We've all heard that teen pregnancy rates have decreased, and as it turns out, there's a pretty clear force behind this: The rate of teens who have engaged in penetrative sex is down from 54 percent to 41 percent.

But one expert isn't quite sure this signifies a complete departure from "adult" behaviors—she just thinks the way teens are behaving has shifted. Sarah Slobin, Things editor at Quartz, penned an article on this subject, and she spoke to about the shift.

"There are limitations with this study that I think are important to recognize. Culturally, we’ve seen a lot of shifts in behavior across all ages. Are teens dating and going out less? Sure. But the idea of dating has changed, as have the economics of socializing. Adults go out to the movies less, does that mean they are less adult-like?'" she says in an emailed statement. "Just because you are not getting pregnant or losing your virginity doesn’t mean you are safe.  The data also show that this generation is also engaging in anal sex more than older generations, and Gail Dines, who travels around the world talking to teens about porn and sexual health (she is the founder of Culture Reframed), has heard from thousands of adolescent girls from around the world that oral sex is no big deal. Pregnancies are down but sexually transmitted infections are up. The findings of the study say that teens are having less intercourse, but you have to also ask yourself, are you also comfortable with the idea that your [child] may think it’s normal to perform oral sex at 12?"

Of course, all parents have to make their own rules and take the approaches they believe are best when it comes to their kids' sexual behaviors—but Slobin believes staying informed about what teens are really doing and keeping open lines of communication with your own kids is crucial.

"Parents need to be able to talk to their kids about all types of sex and all the risks that are involved," she says. "To do that, it’s really important to understand what these kids are immersed in, what they are sharing and what is normalized." The Internet has changed the way we lead our lives, and teen behavior is affected by this as well. Slobin points out that more teens are using "nudes" as part of their dating habits and watching porn.

"We know that brain of a teenager is wired to seek pleasure and is also terrible at making a good call judgment-wise, especially when a group of friends is involved on social media. Parents need to be taking the phones and computers out of kids' rooms at night. Imagine a girl, tired at the end of the day, alone in her room and some boy she likes is pestering her for nudes," Slobin says.

Like most adults, teens are more dependent on their devices than ever before, and that appears to be the driving force behind many of these changes—maybe they're drinking, driving and working less because, well, they're leaving their homes less. And maybe they're just as sexual as ever, albeit in a way that's more conducive to our Internet and social media-driven times.


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