Teenagers Have Become Lovely Human Beings. But Why?

The Economist discovers that teenagers in the West are a lot less worrisome than they used to be:

Young people are indeed behaving and thinking differently from previous cohorts at the same age. These shifts can be seen in almost every rich country, from America to the Netherlands to South Korea. Some have been under way for many years, but they have accelerated in the past few … [They] are getting drunk less often … Other drugs are also falling from favour … Fighting among 13- and 15-year-olds is down across Europe … Teenagers are also having less sex, especially of the procreative kind … In short, young people are less hedonistic and break fewer rules than in the past. They are “kind of boring”, says Shoko Yoneyama, an expert on Japanese teenagers at the University of Adelaide. What is going on?

Indeed. What is going on? The Economist provides a few options:

  • One possible explanation is that family life has changed….Fathers have upped their child-care hours most in proportional terms….Those doted-upon children seem to have turned into amenable teenagers.
  • Another possibility is that teenagers and young people are more focused on school and academic work.
  • Today’s young people in Western countries are increasingly ethnically diverse….Many of those immigrants arrive with strong taboos against drinking, premarital sex and smoking—at least among girls.
  • Social media allow teenagers’ craving for contact with peers to be squared with parents’ desire to keep their offspring safe and away from harmful substances….Teenagers who communicate largely online can exchange gossip, insults and nude pictures, but not bodily fluids, blows, or bottles of vodka.

Do I even need to bother pointing out that not a single one of these explanations makes any sense? Teenagers from single-parent homes are also better behaved. A focus on school is an effect, not a cause. Non-immigrants are better behaved too. All of this better behavior predates the invasion of social media. And it’s happening mostly in rich countries, not, say, in the Middle East, even though they also have taboos and cell phones. These explanations aren’t even worth tossing out just to knock them down. They’re completely ridiculous.

The lengths that psychologists, sociologists, and other academics will go to in order to protect their turf is remarkable. The obvious answer here is: Today’s teenagers are the first generation in more than half a century to grow up completely lead free.¹ This is, sadly, not a sociological explanation. It doesn’t provide much scope for grand theorizing.² It requires you to believe in an “essentialist” explanation.³ It will produce no new research papers.

On the other hand, it has the virtue of almost certainly being true. So there’s that.

¹Well, not completely. But pretty close.

²In fact, it’s worse than that: it demolishes a whole bunch of pet theories built up over the years by liberals, conservatives, academics, and guys on barstools.

³“Essentialist” is generally used to mean something that’s inherent rather than environmental or societal. It has a bad odor thanks to all the people who claim that blacks do worse than whites because they’re biologically inferior: that is, their problems are essential to their genetic heritage, rather than being the result of white racism. Unfortunately, this has made academics suspicious of any non-sociological argument for anything because they’re afraid it provides a slippery slope to claims that blacks are genetically inferior to whites. This is understandable, but considering that everyone accepts the effects of lead poisoning on IQ and schoolwork—not to mention that lead poisoning is environmental, not genetic—it’s a little hard to understand why so many people resist the possibility that it also has other effects.