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Study finds teens are taking longer to grow up

Researchers say adolescents are holding off on 'adult' responsibilities

Photo (c) Tim Hall - Getty Images
A new study conducted by researchers at San Diego State University and Bryn Mawr College suggests that teens are maturing at a much slower pace than in previous decades.

Lead author Jean M. Twenge, an SDSU psychology professor, says that teens are participating less in certain social activities and taking longer to engage in “adult” responsibilities like driving or even working for pay.

"The developmental trajectory of adolescence has slowed, with teens growing up more slowly than they used to," explained Twenge. "In terms of adult activities, 18-year-olds now look like 15-year-olds once did."

Cultural shift between generations

The researchers analyzed seven nationally representative surveys conducted between 1976 and 2016, which questioned 8.3 million 13- to 19-year-olds about their engagement in adult activities. The study focused on comparisons between teens in the 2010s and their counterparts from the 2000s, 1990s, 1980s, and 1970s.

After adjusting for factors like family size, life expectancy, education, and the economy, survey data indicated that teens in the 2010s are less likely to work for pay, drive, date, drink alcohol, go out without their parents, or have sex than teens from previous decades. The findings were consistent across all demographic groups, which suggests an overarching cultural shift between generations.

The researchers say that the results cannot be explained away by extra time spent on schoolwork or extracurricular activities, since these factors have remained steady or decreased over time. Rather, they believe that an increasing amount of time spent online could be playing a role.

Not necessarily a problem

While older generations may lament what they perceive to be stunted development, co-author Heejung Park, an assistant professor of psychology at Bryn Mawr College, says that the findings do not necessarily indicate a problem in today’s youth.

"Our study suggests that teens today are taking longer to embrace both adult responsibilities (such as driving and working) and adult pleasures (such as sex and alcohol)," he said. "These trends are neither good nor bad, but reflect the current U.S. cultural climate."

The full study has been published in Child Development.

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