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A 40-year study finds Generation Z is avoiding sex, alcohol, and driving like never before

Chris Weller
Gen z teenagers

Today's teenagers don't seem to care much about hitting the open road, scoring a six-pack with a fake ID, or asking their peers out on dates.

According to a new study from psychologists Jean Twenge and Heejung Park, teenagers instead prefer to sit at home, say no to drugs and alcohol, and scroll through a litany of social media apps.

The study, published in the journal Child Development, analysed survey responses from 8.3 million teenagers given between 1976 and 2016. Overwhelmingly, today's teens were found to be less likely to drive, work for pay, go on dates, have sex, or go out without their parents.

"This isn't just about parenting," Twenge told Business Insider. "It's also about teens themselves and the economy and fertility rates and people living longer."

Of course, since the study's conclusions are based on personal survey responses, the findings may not apply broadly to all of Gen Z. There are also bound to be members of the generation for whom the traits don't apply, as with any demographic study.

But Twenge chalked the findings up to an overall shift in the way society has operated. She is the author of "iGen: Why Today's Super-Connected Kids are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy -- and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood." The book explores the conditions in which today's youth are being raised. Contrary to popular belief, Twenge said, teens aren't lazy or square -- they're a product of their environment like every other generation.

In the mid-20th-century, she said, people adopted what evolutionary psychologists call a "fast-life strategy." Lifespans were shorter, work was more imperative, and so kids grew up relatively quickly without as much supervision from their parents. By the year 2000, though, the US had taken up a "slow-life strategy." People were living longer, resources were more abundant, and people started raising their kids to stay kids longer.

Because there seems to be less of a need for modern teens to become adults, Twenge and Park's research suggests that today's 18-year-old more closely resembles a 15-year-old of the 1970s or '80s.

However, one of the most disturbing characteristics of Generation Z, or "iGen" in Twenge's parlance, is that suicide rates have now surpassed homicide rates. Twenge believes smartphones may play a crucial role. Gen Z is the first generation to be raised according to this slow-life strategy as smart phones became prominent. (Its members, after all, are the first to have no concept of life without the internet.) Instead of working or playing outside, teens are more likely to feel isolated and tethered to their devices.

"Today's teens may go to fewer parties and spend less time together in person, but when they do congregate, they document their hangouts relentlessly -- on Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook," Twenge wrote recently in The Atlantic. "Those not invited to come along are keenly aware of it."

But getting rid of smartphones shouldn't be parents' first goal if they want to safeguard their kids' mental health. As per the study's findings, Twenge said the first goal should be encouraging independence. If kids are more concerned with working or getting involved in their community, they will naturally have less idle time to fill with their smartphone.

At the same time, not all of Gen Z's traits are problems that need to be solved, she said, like the lower incidences of drinking and sex.

"Let's have those go to zero," she said. "That would be just fine."