Everyone knows that teens take risks. Whether you’re inclined to blame their immature brains, peer pressure, or the influence of the media, you probably won’t be shocked by just how prevalent risky behaviors are in this age group. A 2013 CDC-sponsored survey found that a substantial minority of high school students had, in the 30 days before the survey, drunk alcohol (34.9%), used marijuana (23.4%), and/or smoked cigarettes (15.7%). Almost half reported having had sex at some point, and 15% said they had had four or more sexual partners.
High schoolers are also putting themselves at risk of car accidents—four in ten of those who had driven in the past 30 days said they had texted or emailed while doing so—as well as diabetes and obesity (four in ten reported that, on the average school day, they spent at least three hours on computers or video games for non-school-related reasons).
Despite this grim litany of numbers, parents of teens can take heart from one surprising conclusion: Your sons and daughters are actually less likely to take many risks than teens were in the early 1990s. Specifically, according to the report’s summary of data for which long-term comparisons are possible:
- Teens are less likely to engage in all three behaviors that contribute to unintentional injuries (riding with a driver who had been drinking alcohol and never or rarely wearing a bike helmet or seat belt).
- According to seven of eleven relevant measures, teens today participate in and experience less violence than they did two decades ago (carrying a weapon, being threatened or injured with a weapon at school, being in a physical fight, and so on).
- Eleven of thirteen tobacco-related measures, four of five alcohol-related measures, and five of thirteen other drug-related measures show that their use is becoming less prevalent among teens.
- Sexual risk-taking is also on the decline by five major measures—including ever having had sexual intercourse, currently being sexually active, and having had four or more sexual partners—out of twelve measures in all.
Why would teen risk-taking decline even as society grows more permissive in some ways? Among the many factors underlying this seeming paradox, one of them may be parents’ closer supervision of their children. It’s a well-established fact that parental monitoring affects some teen risk-taking behaviors, like drinking alcohol and engaging in sexual activity, and there’s reason to think that such monitoring could be on the rise.
Although there aren’t any comprehensive measures of how parental supervision has changed over time, the limited available data suggest that, as Jeffrey Dill has written on this blog, children today spend more time indoors and under their parents’ direct supervision than they did a generation ago. A large (though unscientific) survey of Slate readers reached the same conclusion: “as time passes, the picture of childhood looks a lot less wild and reckless and a lot more monitored.” “Latchkey kids,” moreover, are becoming a vanishing breed, Census data show.
Do these trends extend into the teen years? I couldn’t find any direct information showing whether today’s parents are keeping a closer eye on their teenage sons’ and daughters’ behavior and activities than their counterparts of decades past. But between changing societal standards for parenting and the dizzying array of supervised extracurricular activities aimed at college-anxious middle- and upper-class teens, it seems like a plausible hypothesis. Maybe we should consider the decline of teen risk-taking to be, in part, a silver lining of helicopter parenting.