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A new study analyzing over 8.3 million survey responses from teens between 1976 and 2016 has revealed something many of us have long suspected: teens today are less inclined than their teen predecessors were to take on adult responsibilities. One suspected cause? Cell phones and social media, but their impact doesn’t end there.

Psychologists Jean Twenge and Heejung Park published their findings last week in the journal, Child Development. They report that overwhelmingly, today’s teens are less likely to engage in adult activities, such as driving and going out without parents, than teens were in the 70s, 80s, 90s, and 2000s. Gone are the days of crossing off calendar squares until you could get your learner’s permit or sneaking out to avoid a curfew. These days, it seems, teens are happier to hang out in their rooms with a cell phone.

This isn’t completely a bad thing, though. While modern teens are less likely to get jobs or driver’s licenses, they are also less likely to drink alcohol, do drugs, or have sex, perhaps because doing those things usually involves socializing outside of the home.

The differences aren’t subtle, either. The researchers note that high school seniors in 2016 went out less often with their friends than eighth graders did as recently as 2009. Equally as dramatic, 54 percent of high schoolers reported having sex in 1991, while only 41 percent reported having done so in the early 2010s.

Researchers believe that these changes are in part due to longer life expectancies and an increased abundance of resources, meaning that the nurturing and support necessary to delay adult responsibilities is a privilege afforded by longer, more profitable lives. These delays also have another, more disconcerting association as well – the rising prevalence of smart phones.

In a September 2017 article in “The Atlantic,” study author Twenge writes that “it’s not an exaggeration to describe [today’s teens] as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades. Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones.”

Indeed, as teens become less and less independent, they spend more and more time on their phones. After all, who needs to meet up with friends when doing so would require far more effort than simply texting them nonstop?

Researchers believe that when socializing with friends in person takes a backseat to socializing with them on the phone or Internet, teens have fewer opportunities to feel truly connected with one another, leading to increases in mental health concerns. Today’s teens are more isolated and have a higher rate of suicide than previous generations. It becomes a vicious cycle. Without a driver’s license or a job to fund independent pursuits, teens limit their own options for socialization.

So, how can parents help encourage teens to become more independent, socialize outside the home, and safeguard their mental health? A few simple changes could have a big effect.

1 | Limit cell phone use

While your teen might hate you at first, there is a negative correlation between screen time and happiness. That is to say, the more time your teen spends on his phone, the less happy he is likely to be. Don’t ban screens entirely, but rather model your own moderate screen time consumption and then ask that the rest of the family does the same.

2 | Encourage your child to build independence

This is one of those universally painful truths of parenting: to love and nurture them, we sometimes have to be the ones to push them out of the nest. Help your teen to get her driver’s license as soon as she’s ready. Tell your son to get a job to pay for his share of the cell phone bill and to fund his own social outings. By gently guiding them towards independence, they’re more likely to hit the ground running when they finally move out (which, let’s be honest, we hope they do).

3 | Strengthen ties with the community

Push your teen to become more involved in his activities and extracurriculars. Is your teen in the photography club? Encourage him to meet up with some other members to snap some shots for their next assignment. Does your daughter take programming classes? Offer space for her to host a study group or, better yet, suggest the local library or an Internet cafe where they can work together without a parent lurking over their shoulders.

Use existing connections as opportunities for deeper involvement and socialization. Creating a support network of friends with whom your teen spends time regularly will create more natural opportunities for socialization outside of social media.   

Of course, these things are easier said than done, but simply being aware of the impact of smart phones and social media is a big step towards addressing the underlying issues of increased isolation and decreased responsibility. Limit technology, strengthen independence, and encourage meaningful social connections to give your teen the mental health boost he may need.

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