“Are the kids alright?” is a question every generation seems to ask. People love to point fingers at the latest cohort of children and their idiosyncrasies: their TikTok dances, their e-cigarettes, their drug use, their protest movements. It seems that the “kids these days” are always misbehaving, in some form or another.
There is some merit to the idea that youth disproportionately misbehave — through one lens, crime is somewhat expected in adolescence, explained Patti Coffey, a psychology professor at UW-Madison.
However, a lot of crime is “adolescent-limited,” meaning that a “vast majority” of people who commit crimes as adolescents will not become adult offenders, Coffey clarified.
In fact, both violent and non-violent crime is at an all-time low for both adolescents and adults, following a high point in the mid-1990s, according to an analysis by the Bureau of Justice and Statistics.
Adolescent behavior changes over time along with shifts in society, according to Bradford Brown, a professor of educational psychology and human development at UW-Madison who specializes in adolescent social adjustment.
And it is possible that a combination of societal developments — like increased attention toward children, recognition of economic disparities and a greater focus on education — could influence young Americans to behave in ways that are good rather than bad.
Contextualizing, characterizing adolescent behavior
A number of adolescent behaviors, such as drug use, tobacco use, age of first heterosexual intercourse, multiple partners, violent crime, have decreased over the past 40 or 50 years, according to Brown.
But reasons for the decreased trends vary.
For one, many of these behaviors have become disincentivized — tobacco use has become more expensive, and new laws restrict access to controlled substances.
American society is also partially driven by fear — after undergoing the “panic scare” of the AIDS epidemic, for example, Americans are more careful to have safe sex, Brown said.
However many of these behaviors are hard to track and it’s possible they are not becoming “better” or “worse” but rather changing shape, Brown said.
He highlighted how while cigarette use has declined in adolescent populations, vaping has become an epidemic; while heterosexual intercourse now tends to occur later in life, other sexual behaviors may still be occuring at the same rate or even earlier.
One particularly rapid and recent change in American society is the role and length of the adolescent period, according to Brown.
Adolescence is now considerably longer than it has ever been before as young people reach puberty earlier than they have in the past. And an earlier-starting adolescence impacts every American, whether they are biologically early bloomers or not.
Adolescence also ends later, due to the growing proportion of individuals who continue on through higher education.
“We maintain that role of ‘student’ longer,” Brown said. “That means that settling down into a career, settling down into a committed partnership, starting a family and so on all occurs later.”
Even as the period of adolescence expands, it remains a key period in human development.
The adolescent brain is not fully developed and regions that are able to control impulses and effective decision-making are not fully matured, Coffey said. Additionally, adolescence is a stage in which people are highly influenced by their peers and where teenagers seek to separate from their parents, families and authority figures.
“They are starting to form their own opinions and act out in opposition to authority. And I think that's kind of a natural part of adolescence, and part of self growth and development during that stage,” Coffey said.
Explaining trends in adolescent actions
However, characterizing American adolescent behavior as good or bad can be difficult because the definitions are complex — behaviors are only called “good” or “bad” when they are placed in context with a society’s values.
This is tricky, according to Robert Nix, a UW-Madison professor of human development and family studies, because societal norms shift over time and some risk factors for behavioral problems get better while others get worse.
“I think there are multiple different trends happening at the same time that make it really hard to know whether there are increases or decreases in total problems,” Nix said.
Risk factors, which are particularly harmful when one is young, often directly affect social-emotional functioning, a key component of behavioral and emotional regulation that describes a young person’s ability to manage emotions and have positive social relationships with others, Nix added.
There is a strong argument that aversive experiences — which may result in poor social emotional functioning — such as trauma, poverty or homelessness may increase the likelihood that one will engage in criminal behavior, according to Coffey.
Individuals with greater social-emotional functioning tend to be happier, more satisfied, more connected and feel more included in their communities while poor social-emotional functioning can be tied to bad behavior and worse relationships with others, Nix explained.
Social-emotional functioning is something that is best taught early in life in order to better negate the possibility of bad behavior or other poor health deficits, he added.
Early social-emotional skills can predict the future likelihood of being arrested, as well as future drug use, single-parenthood, income and health status, such as high blood pressure and obesity.
“We're social beings, and if you have the skills to get along with your family members or your friends or strangers that you encounter on a daily basis, things are just going to go a lot better for you,” Nix said. “If you don't have those skills and feel really isolated or lonely, that takes a toll on your physical and mental health.“
Coffey also emphasized the importance of social bonds. If someone is not bonded to a prosocial or positive structure within the community, such as school or an athletic program, they are at a higher risk of engaging in crime and other antisocial behaviors, she said.
One particularly salient risk factor for substandard social-emotional functioning is poverty.
“Economic disparities have gotten worse, and that when you have this huge gap between how people in the top quintile and the bottom quintile are doing, just the magnitude of that gap is a risk factor for some behavior problems,” Nix said. “We have a really high percentage of children living in poverty at this point.”
Existing interventions in misbehavior
However, other risk factors have alleviated over time and new developments and organizations of today’s world can counterbalance these risks. For example, Head Start programs, which began about 50 years ago, work to promote skills such as school readiness in young children of low-income families.
“We know that can be really beneficial for young children living in poverty who are able to have that kind of enriched preschool experience,” Nix said. “That makes school much easier for them and that makes their behavior much better during school.”
Better social-emotional skills not only help children attend in class, stay out of fights and feel connected, but also help set the trajectory for a lifetime of success, Nix said.
Similar programming can also be seen outside Head Start programs. For instance, some schools have adopted curricula that include time focused on creating community.
“It's not common across all schools, but we are certainly doing more of that now than we were in past generations,” Nix said.
Other buffers for risk factors include media such as “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood” and “Sesame Street.” TV programs such as these help children identify and articulate how they are feeling and let them know their emotions are valid, according to Nix.
Various social structures may also instill better behavior overall.
Nix argued that academic pressure and the increased competition of college in today’s education system can cause stress and negatively harm students’ behavior. However, Brown said that the opposite can be true because of the intimate connection between education, the economy and societal behavior.
For instance, in the post-WWII era, there was an increase in higher education’s popularity as young adults could no longer readily enter the military or workforce, Brown explained.
“If jobs are harder to come by, then individuals may take college more seriously,” Brown said. “That’s going to have an impact not only on the length of adolescence but how seriously young people take college to begin with and how appropriately they behave.”
This interaction between the economy, the workforce and young adult behavior can still be seen today.
“The more things change, the more they stay the same,” Brown said. “Within all of the changes … are still fundamental features of our society that have not changed that much.”