Today’s Teenagers May Be Better Behaved, But They're Also Lonelier

by Melissa L. Fenton
Originally Published: 
A lonely-looking teen girl sitting sadly on her white bed inside her room during daytime
Arief Juwono / Getty Images

When my kids entered the teen years, running deep among all the general fears parents have about adolescence, my husband and I worried about our teens doing some (or all) of the crazy, reckless, and irresponsible things that we both did as teenagers. I was way less worried about academic pressures than I was about persuasive and ultimately damaging peer pressures. I was fairly certain at some point my teenagers were going to be caught falling down drunk somewhere, and I would be getting the inevitable phone call from local police saying they busted my kid with a trunk full of beer at a neighborhood party.

Not only did I never get that kind of phone call, but aside from a few school detentions for wearing the wrong uniform, my teenagers were actually quite boring. Of course, I should be relieved and, yes, it’s a very good thing I didn’t end up with a crowd of delinquents funneling beer in my basement every weekend, but it’s only a good thing until it isn’t. And though today’s teenagers are on many different levels better, smarter, and more responsible than generations before, they’re also more socially isolated and lonely too.

What’s to blame for this generational shift in teen behavior? Well, lots of things.

We know today’s teens are drinking less and having less sex, and a rising portion of them have never even once tried any kind of mind-altering drug, so what exactly are they doing instead? Well, for starters, they’re spending more time with family (and less with friends their age) or in activities with adult supervision — hence less sex, drugs, and rock ’n roll, and more dinner times (and weekend nights) with the folks.

They’re a generation that has been doted on (helicoptered?) since day one, and they appear to be a more agreeable and rule-following bunch than their predecessors. In other words, sure, there are plenty of eye rolls and know-it-all attitudes, but nobody is telling their mom to “fuck off” while peeling away in her car, headed to the liquor store with a fake I.D. in hand. (Hello, me in 1988!)

The lines of communication between parent and teen seem to have improved immensely, says a study by the World Health Organization. And Dutch teenagers report they don’t drink because of heavy pressure from their parents not to, and they’re actually listening to their parents. They’re also not working part-time jobs, but instead replacing that time with actual studying at home. The highly competitive nature of the college application process has forced teens out of working at fast food joints, and into summer intensive academic camps and experiences. And who is getting into trouble at those places? Nobody.

So, one would think it’s a great thing that we have these teenagers that are so well-behaved, right?

Well, not exactly.

We also have teenagers who seem to be slow to approach coming-of-age situations, as well as maturing at a rate that makes the behavior of today’s 17-year-old look somewhat similar to that of a 12-year-old. They’re more connected to their parents than ever before, but THEY ARE MORE CONNECTED TO THEIR PARENTS THAN EVER BEFORE. With GPS phone tracking technology in hand, we’re able to track (spy?) on our teens whenever and wherever they go. And being in constant contact with us means they are in less contact with the world around them, and being given less of a chance to flex their independence muscle.

When you went away to summer camp in the mid-80s or early-90s how often did you talk to your parents? Once or twice in 6 weeks? Nowadays, our kids and teens away from home contact us daily, if not several times a day.

It’s no coincidence that, coupled with the rise of smartphone ownership and social media use among teenagers, researchers would find some serious mental health issues associated with the two. Perhaps the most consequential effect of their smartphone use is the fact teens now spend significantly less time with actual face-to-face interactions. Experts believe having only online interactions means “they pass up some opportunities to develop deep emotional connections with their friends, which are built on non-verbal cues as well as verbal ones.” It’s plausible and safe to assume that this contributes to feelings of loneliness which are linked to depression, which teens are reporting feeling at increasing rates.

Is the trade-off worth it? Are parents willing to accept the notion that having teens who may be staying away from hedonistic behaviors might, at the same time, be suffering from mental health issues? Is it possible that engaging in risky behaviors as teenagers is a necessary part of their brain development and social evolution into adulthood? And if they’re missing that vital component of their youth, what does adulthood look like to them?

As a parent of three teenagers, I am both terrified and excited about the kind of adults these kids will turn out to be, and curious to see the cause/effect that these new “good” behaviors will ultimately have on their maturation. I suppose only time will tell.

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