We interrupt the usual doom and gloom to bring you some good news

I wanted to highlight a fascinating story in the Economist that shows that young people these days are…healthier and less sexually active than past generations.

This trend appears to be consuming the United States and much of Western Europe. As the Economist says:

In America, the proportion of high-school students reporting “binge-drinking”—more than five drinks in a single session—has fallen by a third since the late 1990s. Cigarette smoking among the young has become so uncommon that more teenagers—some 23% of 17- to 18-year-olds—smoke cannabis than tobacco. Over the past ten years pot-smoking has increased, a bit, among these older teens; but even though now legal in some states (see page 35) its prevalence is still far lower than in the 1970s, when Barack Obama was a member of his high-school “choom gang”. Use of other recreational drugs has fallen sharply. Dr Wilson Compton, the deputy director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, says that perhaps the most worrying trend in young Americans’ drug habits is the increasing abuse of attention-focusing pills such as Ritalin by students keen to improve their performance.

Teenage kicks of other sorts also appear to be on the decline. “Teens are waiting longer to have sex than they did,” according to a report on young Americans from the Guttmacher Institute, a think-tank. America’s teenage pregnancy rate is half what it was two decades ago (see chart 3). Britain has experienced a lesser decline. Most mainland European countries never saw the high rates of teenage pregnancy that America and Britain saw in the 1980s and 1990s, but they too have fewer expectant youngsters than they did.

Teenagers appear not just to be waiting longer for sex, but also by-and-large to be being careful about what they get up to once they get started. According to data from the European Centre for Disease Monitoring and Control, across the European Union (EU) they are the only age group to be diagnosed with fewer sexually transmitted diseases in recent years.

What is causing this newer generation of healthier habits?

The Economist spends a long time analyzing how it could be that people are better off and then comes to this conclusion:

Yet perhaps the best explanation for this youthful self-control is not the role parents play in young adults’ lives today; it is the way they brought those young adults up. A combination of government initiatives, technology, social pressure and reaction against the follies of the past has improved parenting dramatically.

The amount of time parents devote to child care has increased significantly (see chart 4). Today, working mothers spend almost as much time on child care as stay-at-home mothers did a generation before. Data from the Multinational Time Use Study—a collection of surveys from 20 countries—shows that in 1974, mothers without jobs typically spent just 77 minutes with their young children each day, while employed mothers spent about 25 minutes. By 2000 that had risen to 161 minutes and 74 minutes respectively. According to William Strauss and Neil Howe, authors of various studies of the “millennial” generation, children born in the 1970s and 1980s were mostly raised by baby-boomer parents who married young, had children quickly and were often rather blasé about the consequences. The suburbs they moved into—and the inner cities they left derelict and unwanted—were breeding grounds for isolation and disaffection.

And we get this:

“There’s been a huge increase in social pressure to be a good parent,” says Frances Gardner, an academic at the University of Oxford who studies parenting. She points to “Supernanny”, a television programme about parenting, and to the “helicopter parent” phenomenon as evidence of how attitudes towards children have changed.

For much of the 20th century, children were largely ignored and allowed to roam free. If they acted up, they were typically punished with violence. Now, however, parents are expected to be intimately involved in their children’s lives, says Ms Gardner. They supervise homework; attend parents’ evenings; go to prenatal and parenting classes; read blockbusters about child psychology. These improvements are not restricted to parents working as a team: single parenting has improved even more. A British survey shows that in 1994 almost 70% of lone parents did not know where their children were after 9pm—roughly double the rate of nuclear families. By 2005 the rates had almost converged.

So, there is a lot of good news to be seen here. Parents are more involved in their kids’ lives, and this has had good results.

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About Geoff B.

Geoff B graduated from Stanford University (class of 1985) and worked in journalism for several years until about 1992, when he took up his second career in telecommunications sales. He has held many callings in the Church, but his favorite calling is father and husband. Geoff is active in martial arts and loves hiking and skiing. Geoff has five children and lives in Colorado.

21 thoughts on “We interrupt the usual doom and gloom to bring you some good news

  1. Just when I was absolutely sure society was going to hell in a handbasket…. Then you had to throw that in, Geoff. Can’t you just leave a guy to revel in his cynicism? : )

  2. So, it may be that all we have heard about there being a new “Greatest Generation” is more than just media hype.

  3. Before we get carried away celebrating, let’s acknowledge some serious weaknesses in the Economist article.

    Yes, the decrease in tobacco use is good, but to call that solid evidence of generally increasing sobriety in youth is unwarranted. It’s like saying that in the 20th century there were fewer steamboat-related deaths than in the 19th, therefore transportation was safer. The problems didn’t disappear; they migrated platforms.

    The article mixes facts from studies with anecdotal wishful thinking from bureaucrats. What’s the basis for saying, for example, that Ritalin abuse is “to improve their performance?” Performance in what? School? Teens are mass-doping on Ritalin to do better in school? Where’s the beef for that whopper? (Sorry for mixing fast food metaphors!)

    Also, the article says that teen pregnancy rates are down, but the graphic provided shows numbers for teen *birth* rates–not the same thing. Besides, the drop in teen births has less to do with abstinence than with the growing popularity of oral and anal sex–and, of course, porn.

    But Mark Steyn has written about the deeper side of this for years: the double-edged sword of societies in population decline where falling crime rates now (Yay!) portend a sadly infantilized nation later. Celebrating this borders on the same twisted delusions that led Freakonomics to conclude that crime rates dropped (Yay!) because so many violent criminals were aborted in the 70s and 80s (uhhh…).

    That may be the biggest problem with the article (and, I’m sorry to say, the OP): this weird refusal to even consider obvious corollaries and their sinister implications. The same things being celebrated here will become awful in another 10-20 years: sure, we can have lower teen birth rates and less use of some old drugs now, but at what cost? A socially and emotionally sterile populace that’s been permanently cowed into neurotic servitude? If this is how desperate we are to find some good in Generation Y, then we are truly doomed indeed.

    I’m also bothered by the article’s lazy attempt to connect this pseudo-Puritan revival with improved parenting. It openly castigates all former generations who believed in “free range children” and extols “helicopter parents,” even though mountains of research and evidence show the harm being done to this generation by being so bubble-wrapped that adolescence lasts until 30.

    Setting aside the sloppy cause/effect dreaming (Supernanny sparked a new ethos of involved parenting?), unsupported, blatant errors (more parents go to “parents’ evenings” at school? Citation needed.), and vague fluff (what exactly constitutes this “quality time” we’re supposedly seeing so much more of?), the experts cited there do little to make a convincing case for their thesis, let alone explain the success of various societies throughout history in general, who encouraged independence over dependence, even in their children, with almost universally positive results. Let’s not forget that.

  4. I respectfully disagree with Huston’s comment that “helicopter” parenting harms children. In the decadent and hyper-sexualized world of today, you have to be vigilant and shelter your kids.

    Most of us would agree with Huston that the innocent, carefree days of the 1950’s, when children were free to “go out and play” by biking to the park, building tree houses, fishing at the creek, etc., etc. were better for kids, and that the contemporary parenting model of play dates, driving from one after-school activity after another (soccer, dance, karate, violin, etc., etc.), and spending too much time inside playing video games leaves much to be desired.

    I wish my kids had those opportunities, and that we still lived in that world. The problem is that we don’t. We don’t live in Small Town USA – we live in Los Angeles. There are a lot of very damaged people here. If I send my kids (boys ages 9 and 10) to the park by themselves, they’ll be targets. And they’ll be the ONLY ONES at the park without parents. I don’t dare take that chance, so my wife and I accompany them to the park.

    I’ve done everything in my power to create a sort of artificial 1950’s childhood for my kids. But that takes a lot of planning and, yes, helicopter parenting. We put a great deal of effort into finding a Catholic school attended by wholesome families with traditional values – not something that is easy to find here in Los Angeles. We pay a fortune to send our kids to school there, more than we can afford. They are in the Cub Scouts. We have lots of family outings – on Friday I’m taking a day off and we are going to the beach.

    I’m sure it is easier for LDS families to create this sort of environment for their children (we are not LDS, we are devout Catholics, but I greatly admire Mormons and the LDS church as an institution, so that’s why I lurk here), but if you are not LDS and want to raise raise wholesome kids in this decadent age, you have to be a helicopter parent.

    I’m not suggesting that secular culture is so far gone that kids are certain to be screwed up if they are exposed to it. If I were to send my kids to public school, I’m sure they’d be OK. The people at the public schools seem nice enough, and there are no metal detectors at the schools in our city. But they would have to deal with lots of angry children who have been hurt by their parents’ divorces; needy children of single mothers; and neglected children. There are kids who fall into all three categories at their Catholic school, but the ratio of kids from stable families to kids from families with problems is a lot higher at their Catholic school.

    Similarly, I’m sure that I could send my kids to walk to the park by themselves and they would survive the experience. But the world of today is so much farther gone than the world of the 1950’s that I am not willing to take chances.

    The thing is, as Geoff B. and the article suggests, when parents are mindful it makes childhood better! There is less bullying at the park when parents are present. I am the den leader for my youngest’s Cub Scout den and when parents come on the campouts, the kids don’t get homesick and have more fun. When my kids are teenagers, I won’t let them “hang out” until 1:00 a.m. every night with their peers — that just leads to teen pregnancy.

    As my kids get older it will be my duty to make sure they can stand on their own two feet. I don’t intend to attend job interviews with them, for example – that’s nuts. (Although I wonder how often that actually happens, it sounds like an urban legend.) But right now, I feel that I must shelter them. And the fact that more parents are doing this IS paying dividends on a societal level. Maybe one day we can relax our vigilance a little and let kids to go the park by themselves again. But that day hasn’t yet come.

  5. Huston, I was hoping for somebody to pick apart the Economist’s article, so thanks for doing this. Anybody who knows anything about social science realizes that you can take four studies and even 20 studies and pick out details to support whatever position you want to take. Is this possible with the Economist’s article? Yes, it is possible. My anecdotal evidence supports that teens are slightly more responsible these days than teens in the 1970s, when I grew up, but I am willing to be convinced my anecdotal evidence is wrong.

    I have to agree with Joe Schmoe that 1950s style parenting or even 1970s and 1980s style parenting is simply impossible these days. I live in a very small town and kids can ride around town on their bikes for hours by themselves, but what about the many, many people who live in suburbs or urban environments? I lived in Miami for 20 years, and you simply do NOT EVER let your kids out of your sight. EVER. The stories of kids kidnapped or creepy sexual harassers pouncing on your kids are everywhere. So, adapting to today’s reality is simply a necessity.

  6. Recently a young mother in our neighborhood was bedridden. The person she had hired to look after her children was late arriving and the youngest child had a messy diaper. Her four year old decided to seek the help of the next door neighbor who called the Relief Society President who called the bishop who called Church headquarters. Eventually DCS was called and the sick mom with the messy baby was visited by a case worker from the government. The story made me almost ill when I heard it. I know some young parents who are more afraid of neighbors who immediately resort to calling protective services than they are of criminals. After all, the state can ruin your family and deprive you of the right to raise your children.

  7. Joe and Geoff, we actually don’t seem to disagree much here: neither of you denies much of anything I said. The major contentions–that the Economist report is poorly supported, that there are major obvious and implied elements of the issues being ignored, and that the connection drawn between perceived increases in youth responsibility and an imagined improvement in parenting is laughable–seem to stand.

    You both write about needing to shelter our kids from the dangerous world around us today. Three things regarding this:

    First, that’s not really the same as most of what the article talks about as improved parenting: the Economist mentions parents being “intimately involved in their children’s lives” rather than using violent punishment (whatever that means), single parents knowing where their kids are after 9 PM (I’d love to see the original study showing that this didn’t used to be the norm), and: “They supervise homework [this explains the skyrocketing success of American academics…oh, wait…]; attend parents’ evenings [citation needed]; go to prenatal and parenting classes [ditto]; read blockbusters about child psychology [book sales numbers to substantiate this? Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care has sold 50 million copies since 1946–this trend isn’t new] .” Even if all these “facts” are true, none of them magically equal consistently “better” parenting across society.

    So nothing in the article talks about keeping kids safe in our cities: strange that the conversation has gone there. I take it, though, by everybody’s silence on the above specifics, that we can all see them for the rubbish they are.

    Second, keeping kids safe is not necessarily the same as “helicopter parenting.” Watching kids when they’re out of them home might or might not be needed or helpful, but it’s very different from overscheduling, restricting freedom to play and explore, and sheltering them from consequences.

    Here are some results from a Google Scholar search on helicopter parenting; none of these seems too positive:

    Third, the need to keep kids safe in our cities is vastly overblown; a myth, basically. I don’t want this to devolve into a game of whose area is worst or who has the scariest horror stories, but suffice it to say that there is no statistically significant thing as “stranger danger.” It’s as much a case of urban hysteria as fears over shark attacks or terrorist attacks. Consider checking out John Stossel’s excellent documentary Are We Scaring Ourselves to Death? as a start here.

    Liberals complain that the USA jails too many people, but they’re silent when we point out that that explains the drop in crime rates and the amazing safety of our streets.

    Pat is right to fear government intervention more than stranger danger. For great info on these subjects, I recommend keeping up with Lenore Skenazy’s great blog, Free Range Kids.

    Still, the big picture here is this: there is no evidence that this generation of youth is somehow “more responsible” than usual, that there is some trend in “improved parenting” out there, or that the latter caused the former. Indeed, if anything, both research and common sense show us that none of the above is true.

  8. Huston, I would suggest you submit a guest post making your argument and showing point by point how the Economist’s argument misses the boat. You seem to have a lot of passion about this issue.

  9. I never thought helicopter parenting meant you went with your children to the park, rather than sending them on their own. That’s just common sense in our world. I thought it was more about parents who hover over their children in every aspect of their lives, including bullying teachers to give their children better grades and accompanying young adult “children” to job interviews and negotiating higher salaries and benefits.

  10. Geoff, thanks, but I think I made my point. I just hope my negativity here wasn’t excessive–here you were trying to be positive, and I came in and trashed it. Sorry for raining on your parade, buddy.

  11. I think I speak for the rest of us that it’s nice to be kept intellectually honest, particularly when it comes to feel good reports citing unsubstantiated statistics.

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