How Do Today’s Teens Compare to Previous Generations?
Unpacking some numbers and trends.
What about drugs? More or less?
Last week Vox.com released an article with a title saying, “Today’s teens have babies less than you did.” Then the words “have babies” scroll off the screen and are replaced by the word “fight.” Then “drink.” Then “use meth.”
The article goes on to compare the results of the CDC Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey over the last several decades. It even allows you to select the year you were born (if after 1972) and compare your teen years to today.
The question I have to ask is, “Are they right?”
No, I’m not questioning the integrity of the CDC study. In fact, when the most recent survey was released (they release it every two years), I went through some of those numbers with you in detail.
The CDC report is good. It’s the interpretation or “spin” of the report you have to always carefully consider.
Years ago when headlines claimed sexual activity was down in the last decade, I took you on a tour of what those numbers actually revealed. The reality is, teen sex has not dropped in the last decade. If you don’t feel like reading my whole breakdown, the short of it is this: More kids were having sex in the ’80s and ’90s, then it dropped about 8 percent by the turn of the millennium, and has stayed pretty level since. In fact, the CDC’s reports actually say, and I quote, “These levels of sexual experience have not changed significantly from 2002.” (I broke down all the numbers in detail here in our Youth Culture Window article back then.)
So what should have the headlines read?
Again, it depends what vice we want to talk about. Binge drinking is down. Smoking is way down. But even the Vox.com report admits, trying marijuana is way up, about 10 percent. And sex? It’s down since 1991…but really hasn’t moved much in the last 14 years…among TEENS.
That’s where this gets a little more interesting. So far we’ve just been talking about teens. If we look at college kids/young adults, we get a different picture. In fact, casual sex is more common with this college-age group than years past. Mandy Stadtmiller described it well in the title of her Mashable.com article, How long until sex? For millenials, try 10 texts or less. She cites an interesting SDSU study revealing a huge generational shift in attitudes about sex, with acceptance of premarital sex increasing from 42 percent in 2000 to 58 percent in 2012 (and acceptance of same-sex relationship more than tripled). In fact, Millenials are 13 percent more likely to hook up (casual sex) than Xrs were, but with fewer partners. In fact, “sex with aquaintances in the last year” jumped over 10 percent as well in the last decade. In a world where 59 percent of young adults (ages 20-26) have sent a sexual text message, I guess this isn’t surprising.
So read the numbers carefully. When you read the Vox.com article linked above claiming today’s teenagers are watching less television…read the fine print. Because today’s teenagers are staring at screens far more than ever before, but now that includes Netflix and Hulu on their small screens…which, yes…officially isn’t television. (Nice spin, eh?)
Please don’t get me wrong. I’m not one of those doom and gloom guys who thinks today’s teenagers are all going to hell on a bicycle. In fact, I liked this Vox.com article because it shined a light on some areas where our culture has really made some strides (smoking, binge drinking, teen pregnancy…). I just want to make sure we don’t paint an unrealistic picture. We still have a lot of ground to gain, especially teaching young people sex matters.
So keep up the good work being advocates of truth, and be aware how the media spins things.