If the nineties were your playground, then you may have been looking forward to when you and your teen would finally have something in common to talk about… parties, drinks with friends, hanging out in the park, you know the sort of thing. Well I have news for you. Teens these days are much less likely to do any of those things, or indulge in multiple other ‘risk behaviours’ that, as parents, we naturally worry about.

Generation Z, our current young generation, aged about 11-26 years old, are the least likely to take risks, to smoke, drink alcohol, use drugs, have sex early or participate in criminal behaviour in modern history. In fact, since the mid-nineties, rates for all of these behaviours have dropped significantly, making them possibly the most sensible (or careful?, or anxious?) teenagers ever.

It’s hard to say why (and therefore whether they are being sensible, or over cautious, or worried) but a recent fascinating study sheds light on these worldwide trends and suggests some interesting possible reasons.

I thought I would share the facts, and potential causes, with you here.

So put away your favourite 'smiley face' T-shirt, step away from the alcopops, forget about the sex, drugs and raves of your youth, and discover the world of teens today!

What have we discovered?

An international study looked at trends in smoking, alcohol use, cannabis use*, age of first having sex, and juvenile crime in Australia, England, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and the USA over the last 30 years, finishing just before the pandemic, in 2019, and the findings were striking!

The main finding was that adolescent risk behaviours (i.e. those mentioned above) dropped massively from 1999 to 2019.

Several causes are suggested by the study authors, driven by multiple other scientific studies, and just as importantly, some of the ‘usual suspect’ targets for blame are, in fact, ruled out (it’s not social media!).

One of the biggest causes for the drop is likely to be ‘less unsupervised in-person socialising’ leading to declines in many risk behaviours.

What does this mean?

It means that teenagers are not spending as much time hanging out together unsupervised, in environments where risk behaviours can take place, i.e. parties (without parents), in the bus stop at night, round the edges of the park, you get the gist.

Basically, our kids aren’t going to parties like we did.

In fact multiple studies have noted the decline in ‘unsupervised unstructured face to face time’ (i.e. parties/ hanging out).

For example, nearly 80% of US 10th graders (15–16 years) reported going to parties at least once a month during the 1990s, but by 2017 this had fallen to about 57%. I will leave it with you to ponder the pros and cons of fewer parties, and less time spent hanging around with friends, but this is thought to have led to less underage drinking, less smoking, and in turn those changes may have led to less cannabis use (the commonest drug used by teens).

As you can imagine it is a complex picture around why they may be socialising less in person, but what studies have repeatedly shown is that teens have not all replaced in-person contact with online activity. If this was the case, we would expect online activity to be associated with less drink and drugs and smoking, whereas the opposite is true. Heavy online/ social media users are more likely to smoke, drink and use drugs!

The picture is complicated, but the internet has not replaced parties.

We need to look for other causes for our 'risk averse generation'… it is likely that there is not one common reason, but multiple causes which have jointly led to a less risky picture, some of which may have worked together to create our (much more careful) youth of today!

There’s a lot to consider, so below I will outline just some of the key theoretical causes, which may play a part in the bigger picture of reduced risk taking behaviour in teenagers. In the conclusion I will try to suggest what this means for us as parents, and what we might like to consider next...

Suggested causes for less risk taking in 21st century teens

1.     They have actually replaced one risk with another

Smoking has decreased dramatically, but unfortunately vaping has taken off since 2016, which suggests teens are still interested in novel ways to take risks, especially if there is an element of marketing which suggests to them that vaping is ‘cool’. We still need to talk to them about the dangers of vaping (they seem to have understood the health risks of smoking). Other dangers such as online gambling are also worth keeping an eye on.

2.     Parenting approaches have changed in 30 years

Current parents of teens probably keep a closer eye on their kids, talk more about risk in an approachable way, and spend more time with them as a family, with fathers in particular being more involved these days than decades ago. Teens also report closer emotional bonds to their parents than they used to, which may mean that they are more reluctant to let them down with poor behaviour.

3.     They are having sex later (but it’s complicated)

If you have read How to Grow a Grown Up (the book I co-wrote with Fabienne Vailes about raising teens in the 21st century) you might recall our discussion of delayed independence being noted in today’s young adults; learning to drive later, leaving home later, having kids later. It may be that they are now having sex later as part of this ‘delayed growing up’. The cause may also be related to increased parental monitoring as previously discussed, or, on a positive note, to the international evidence of declining rates of child sexual abuse since the early 1990s. (The latter is relevant as the question asked of 11-15 year olds was ‘whether they had ever had sex’, but sadly not whether it was consensual.)

4.     They are too stressed to have fun/ take risks.

From my own work as a GP I believe that this next reason plays a big role, but I do, of course, recognise that there is no single reason for an entire generation becoming more risk averse. The increase in pressure on young people today to succeed at school, to compete for jobs in a difficult financial environment, to earn a living wage, or to afford to buy a home may have led them to make more careful choices when younger, to ensure survival later. A US study showed for example that 15-17 years olds in 2019 spent twice as much time on homework as their counterparts in the mid-nineties. Multiple studies show that young people see ‘partying’ (and therefore drinking etc) as incompatible with their academic, sporting, or other ambitions. They also can’t afford it. Do we need to encourage them to achieve a balance?

5.     They would rather be healthy.

We have a brilliantly switched-on, educated younger generation, who are very aware of public health messages, so it is possible that they just don’t want to smoke, drink, or take drugs (or catch an STI/ get pregnant) when young. If we could just get them to eat fruit, then we would be #winning! I personally think that if you asked teens why they don’t do these things, they might simply say ‘it’s stupid to smoke/ get drunk’ etc. They just don’t think it's cool. The culture these days is to look good and be healthy, so why would they knowingly undermine their health and wellbeing? I recognise it’s not that simple, but, for many young people, I suspect it might boil down to that.

So where does that leave us?

As parents of teens in the 21st century I think we should probably feel reassured that they are less likely to smoke, drink, use drugs, have sex early or get involved in juvenile crime than previous generations.

However, and this is an important point, the teenage years are meant to be when we take risks and explore the world around us. It is how teens discover the boundaries of their world, and grow to become independent, whilst finding their tribe and developing their self-identity.

If they are not hanging out together as much, or having parties and trying new things, and are, in fact, working too hard to kick back and relax with friends, then perhaps we need to think about how we help them to create balance in their lives. I’m not advocating the use of illicit substances here - I’m saying that risk taking is about taking good risks too, like meeting new people and going to new places. How do we help them to do that safely?

My own view is that they are risk averse as a generation because they are both well-educated and sensible about the dangers of certain behaviours, but also because they are too anxious about failing, letting people they care about down and making a mess of things.

What should we be doing as parents?

Adolescence is the precise time when they should be able to spend time with friends, become more independent of parents, learn to say 'no' to illicit substances, and learn about themselves. If we want them to take good risks in life, (which they may not do if they are too risk averse) then we need to ensure they have opportunities to spend face to face time with friends, advise them about making good choices in life, let them know we’re there for them if they make a mistake, and keep talking openly about life’s more lively or risky moments (though better keep those Nineties recollections to yourself- they’ll be easily shocked!).

I hope this has been interesting, and maybe you're now thinking about encouraging them to organise a party. I think some supervision is still important though, so get thinking, get talking to them and maybe even dig out your best rave outfit so you can blend right in!

*Cannabis is still the most commonly used drug, even in a world of volatile drugs, 'legal highs', Class A cocaine, and nitrous oxide cannisters. But they are all decreasing in overall use. (NHS Digital)