Hey! You! Did you go drinking last night? Last week? Last month? Well if you did, the chances are that you drank less than your mom and dad did when they were at the same age. That’s right: people in the developed world have been developing more moderate drinking habits for the past 20 years. So the chances are that when you went out for a pint, it was far more controlled and regulated than when your parents went out to do the same.
The statistics don’t lie. Across the developed world, the number of kids that are drinking less and later in life than their parents is going up. They are also doing fewer drugs and having less sex than their parents did. So what gives, what is pushing this trend? A big part of it is stigma and changing attitudes. Turns out it’s just not as cool these days to get black out drunk and act as a menace to society. Kids these days (amirite?). Another role is better parenting. Well perhaps not better, but at the very least more involved. Your dad and mom very likely spent far more time with you than their own parents did with them. Dads especially have seen their involvement rise, with more 15-year-olds reporting have an easier time talking to their fathers than those that were asked the same question 15 years ago.
Another possibility for the trend could be that teenagers and young adults today are far more likely to be more focused on school than they were a decade or two ago. The number of 25 to 34-year-olds with a tertiary degree in the OECD countries rose 17%, from 26% to 43%, between 2003 and 2012. During the same period, the number of teenagers with paid work collapsed. For Americans aged 16 -19, the rate of paid work during July (i.e. the summer) dropped to 43% in 2016 from 65% two decades earlier. This drop in summer work has corresponded with a rise in summer studying.
Finally, the most popular theory to explain this trend points to changes in technology. Teenagers are heavy internet users and the ubiquitous presence of smartphones has only increased this trend. By their own admission, 15-year-olds in the OECD countries spent an average 146 minutes online per day in 2015, up from the 105 in 2012.
Social media allows you meet up with friends without actually meeting up with friends. What’s not to love! Teenagers can meet up online and no bottles have to be opened. In America, surveys known as Monitoring the Future have recorded a decline in unsupervised hanging-out, which has been especially sharp since 2012.
Even if it might mean less alcoholic teenagers, the rise in social media and smartphones do present trade-offs. Firstly, hanging out online is not how you build deep lifelong relationships, because you need verbal and non-verbal cues to truly bond with someone. Secondly, there are rising fears of how this rising technology is affecting teenage brains. Are we just replacing one harmful substance such as alcohol by another? Last November Chamath Palihapitiya, formerly a Facebook executive, said that his children were “not allowed to use that shit.” So far, hard evidence that social media is rewiring teenagers brains remains to be published. Any link between increased internet use and general unhappiness seem to be weaker than how, say, food or sleep might affect your mood.
Still, something is definitely happening; whether it is more involved parenting, more career focused teens, or social media remains to be seen. The number of 15-year-olds who say they make friends easily has dropped in every country in the OECD.
We are a weird generation – molded by changes so rapid and strange they would make anyone feel a bit of whiplash. Yet here we are. We drink less than our parents do but are also lonelier and have a harder time making those lifelong connections. Maybe we can have the best of both. Put down your phone and close your textbook and go talk to someone. You’ll be glad you did. Probably.