Complaining about the younger generation is an activity that dates back thousands of years. Yet people moaning about today's teenagers are particularly ill-informed. Substance abuse and delinquency have plunged in recent years, but this probably won't get a fraction of the attention of the supposed increase in narcissism.
The National Survey on Drug Use and Health has studied teenagers since 2003, interviewing 13,000 to 18,500 a year, which makes for an impressively large sample size. Between 2003 and 2014, substance use disorders for those aged 12-17 declined by an astonishing 49 percent, according to a paper in Psychological Medicine.
More importantly for those who are not teenagers themselves, delinquent behaviors such as assault, stealing, and carrying weapons have fallen by 34 percent. The findings accompany confirmation of better-known trends, like the big decline in American teenage pregnancies, which reflects both later starts to sex and more consistent use of contraceptives.
Disappointing as this will be to op-ed writers keen to bemoan the bad behavior of today's yoof, policy-makers are keen to know the causes so that they can replicate them. After all, on many of these measures, the US still has rates of delinquency far above other wealthy nations, so much more can be done.
The trends have been known for some time, at least among psychologists. "But what we learned in this study is that the declines in substance abuse are connected to declines in delinquency,” said first author Professor Richard Grucza, of Washington University, in a statement.
Grucza's statistical tests showed commonalities in the trends. “This suggests the changes have been driven more by changes in adolescents themselves more than by policies to reduce substance abuse or delinquent behavior," Grucza said.
Teenagers have become less inclined to participate in all forms of risky behavior, so while policies to tackle specific issues, such as tobacco use, may be helping at the margins, the bulk of the effect comes from something more fundamental, which is producing consequences across the board.
On Washington University BioMed Radio Grucza said we don't yet know what this underlying force is; “It might be because the rate of child abuse and child maltreatment is going down. It might be because we've gotten lead out of the environment, and lead leads to neurological deficits that cause people to be more impulsive and likely to engage in criminal behavior.”
Hearing we've got lead out of the environment will be news to the inhabitants of Flint, and many other deprived areas, but Grucza's work still shows that for all the panic about a generation addicted to phones and social media, the kids, relative to past generations, are alright.