New York - Parents may still marvel at how fast their children grow up, but a new study finds that US teenagers are maturing more slowly than past generations.
In some ways, the trend appears positive: high school children today are less likely to be drinking or having sex compared with their counterparts in the 1980s and 1990s.
But they are also less likely to go on dates, have a part-time job or drive - traditional milestones along the path to adulthood.
So is that slower development “good” or “bad”? It may depend on how you look at it, the researchers say.
According to “life history theory”, neither fast nor slow development is inherently good or bad, says study author Jean Twenge.
Still, there are “trade-offs” to each path, explains Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University.
“The upside of slower development is that teens aren’t growing up before they are ready,” she says. “But the downside is, they go to college and into the workplace without as much experience of independence.”
This is clearly evident in the real world, according to one specialist in adolescent mental health.
“I think if you ask any college professor, they’ll tell you students these days are woefully unprepared in basic life skills,” said Yamalis Diaz.
Diaz, who was not involved in the study, is a clinical assistant professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at NYU Langone Medical Centre, in New York City.
Today’s students may be sharp academically, Diaz says, but they often have trouble with basics such as planning, time management and problem-solving.
That’s not to say teens should be rushing into adulthood, she stresses.
The problem arises when they have no experience with adult-like responsibilities, or spend little time navigating relationships with their peers.
“It’s like going into the heavy lifting of adulthood without having exercised the necessary muscles,” Diaz says.
The findings, published online in the journal Child Development this week, are based on surveys done between 1976 and 2016.
Together, they involved more than 8 million US children in the 13-19 age group.
Over those years, the study found, teenagers gradually became less likely to try “adult” activities - including drinking, having sex, working, driving, dating and simply going out (with or without their parents).
By the 2010s, only 55% of high school seniors had ever worked for pay - versus roughly three-quarters of their counterparts in the late 1970s to the 1990s.
Similarly, only 63% had ever been on a date. That compared with 81% to 87% of high school seniors in the 1970s through 1990s.
In some findings that will make parents happy, today’s children are often putting off drinking. In the 1970s and 1980s, more than 90% of high school seniors had ever tried alcohol. That dipped to 81% in the 1990s, and dropped further - to 67% - by the 2010s.
As for sex, 54% of high school pupils in 1991 said they’d ever had sex. By 2015, that figure stood at 41%.
The patterns were seen among children of all races and family income levels.
So, what’s going on?
The researchers found no evidence that children are now busier with homework and extracurricular activities - and therefore have little time for jobs, dating or going out.
An obvious question is whether children’s “devices” and online socialising are taking the place of real interaction.
Twenge found that by the early 2010s, high school seniors were online for an average of 11 hours a week. But, she pointed out, the patterns seen in this study began before widespread internet use - so it’s not clear how much of a role technology has played.
Diaz agreed that it’s unclear. But, she added, it’s obvious that technology is a vital part of how children socialise. “So they may be spending less time actually socialising, face-to-face,” she said.
And then there’s the “hovering” parent syndrome.
In recent years, Diaz said, parents have become much more “child-centric”, compared with the days when parents would send their children outside with instructions to be back by dinner.
And while that is well-intended, Diaz said, children today may have few chances to deal with relationships, work through their own problems -and otherwise “stand on their own two feet”.
“On one hand,” Diaz said, “today’s parents should be commended for sending their children the right messages about what’s appropriate for their age.”
But, she added, “sometimes parents want to keep doing everything for their kids.”
Diaz suggested that parents ease up on that drive, and give children the space to develop necessary skills, like time management. She also advised parents to create some “no phone” time every day at home - and to encourage their children to do the same when they’re with their friends.