Kids These Days: How Youth Behavior Really Stacks Up

Research shows how adults form their beliefs about youth.

Posted Dec 05, 2020

JackF/Adobe Stock
Source: JackF/Adobe Stock

If you haven’t said it yourself, you’ve certainly heard others utter the statement that typically begins with “Kids these days…” and describes some deficiency of modern youth. Usually, it’s said with a lofty tone that suggests today’s young people are less responsible and well-behaved compared to previous generations.

Researchers from the University of California, Santa Barbara set out to better understand this phenomenon. They conducted a series of studies to determine what makes adults believe that today’s kids are deficient when compared to previous generations, and whether that belief is true.

In three of the studies, researchers aimed to characterize the traits of adults who believe there is something wrong with “kids these days.” In the first study, they asked participants to complete a questionnaire that measures authoritarianism; then they asked participants whether they thought today’s youth are less respectful of their elders compared to past generations. Overall, the researchers found that adults thought that contemporary young people were less respectful. Interestingly, respondents who were more authoritarian were more likely to believe youth do not respect their elders.

In the second study, researchers measured adults’ authoritarianism and intelligence, then asked if today’s youth are more or less intelligent than previous generations. This time, the measure of authoritarianism didn’t have an effect; instead, adults who scored higher on the intelligence test believed that “kids these days” were becoming less intelligent. (By the way, this statement is categorically false according to systematic reviews on patterns of intelligence over decades.)

In the third study, researchers gave participants an author recognition test designed to measure how much they read. Then they asked to what extent they believed “kids these days” enjoy reading. On the whole, participants believed today’s youth enjoy reading less; adults who read more were more likely to believe that children today no longer like to read.

The fourth and fifth studies took deeper dives with adults who like to read. The researchers found that prolific readers were more likely to say that today’s adults don’t like reading as much as adults from previous generations. Their views were also affected by inaccurate memories and their own perceptions of their reading skills.

“It is important to remember that the results of this study reveal more about the beliefs of adults than the realities of youth,” said Anthony Burrow, director of the Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research and PRYDE, the Program for Research on Youth Development and Engagement. “In this light, it may be worth considering what it feels like to be a young person navigating a society comprised of adults who harbor pessimistic impressions of youth.”

The bottom line: Our talents and perceptions influence how we view others, especially young people. But how are young people actually doing these days?

What We Know About Youth and Risky Behaviors

It turns out we have 28 years' worth of data on the decision-making behaviors of U.S. teens. Each year since 1991, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has conducted a nationally representative survey of teens in grades 9 through 12 to ask about risky sexual behavior, alcohol and drug use, tobacco use, and safety precautions. The study also monitors the prevalence of obesity, asthma, and unintentional injuries. Here’s a run-down of the study findings:

  • Fewer kids are smoking. In 2019, only 24 percent of kids had tried smoking (even one puff)—down from 70 percent in 1991. And 6 percent considered themselves smokers, down from 28 percent in 1991.
  • Fewer kids are drinking. In 2019, 29 percent of kids said they had an alcoholic drink within 30 days of taking the survey—down from 51 percent in 1991.
  • Kids take more safety precautions than they used to. In 2019, kids were significantly more likely to wear a seatbelt and avoid driving with someone who has been drinking alcohol compared to 1991.
  • Violent behavior has decreased. In 2019, 13 percent of kids report carrying a weapon—down from 26 percent in 1991. And 22 percent report being in a physical fight in the last year—down from 43 percent in 1991.
  • More kids are smoking marijuana. Thirty-seven percent report trying it and 22 percent report using it regularly—both increases since 1991. Cocaine use among teens peaked in 1999 but is now down to its lowest level since 1991—about 4 percent.
  • Obesity rates have steadily risen since the survey began, and are at their highest levels now. More than 15 percent of U.S. teens were considered obese in 2019.
  • A lower percentage of kids are having sexJust 38 percent in 2019 reported having sex, compared to 54 percent in 1991. Kids were significantly less likely to have sex before the age of 13 and more likely to use a condom or another form of birth control.
  • Nearly 19 percent of teens have seriously considered suicide. This is up from a low of 14 percent in 2009, but significantly lower than the 29 percent who reported considering suicide in 1991.

The bottom line: Today’s teens are doing pretty well in contrast to 28 years ago. Although they are more likely to be obese, use marijuana, and consider suicide, they are less likely to abuse alcohol, engage in violent behavior, and smoke. They’re also more likely to take safety precautions, including practicing safe sex. 

These decades of surveys confirm that our beliefs about “kids these days” have more to do with our own perceptions rather than actual irresponsible youth behavior.

As Burrow said, it’s important to realize that those perceptions are worth changing.

“Part of that change may come from sharing more positive and uplifting narratives of youth, and recognizing the generative contributions young people make to society as well,” he said. “Such sharing is as important in personal anecdotes and media coverage of youth, as it is in the scientific findings showcasing widespread interest in positive youth development. There, we might find reasons to celebrate the ways young people today may be even more impressive than in generations past.”

Visit Cornell University’s Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research’s website for more information on our work.