A new study suggests that falls in smoking, drinking, drug use, and other risky behaviors among Western teens is heavily driven by a decline in “unstructured socializing” — that is, unsupervised parties or other face-to-face interactions.
There has been an enormous decline in various risky behaviors across Western youth for the last several years. In the late 1990s, around 20% of 15- and 16-year-olds in the United States smoked daily. By 2019, that was more like 4%. The numbers in England, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and Australia have shown a similar fall, from a somewhat lower base.
Likewise, around the turn of the millennium, about 40% of people aged 13 to 18 in the U.S. reported having drunk alcohol in the last week. By 2019, it was below 20%. Again, other Western countries show a similar trend.
Similar declines are visible in the percentages of young people who smoke cannabis, have underage sex, or commit crimes.
The study, a review of the existing literature and published in the journal Social Science & Medicine, looked at whether a single main cause drove the trends, or whether they were the product of many different factors. It noted that in several of the countries it looked at, young people are spending less time in face-to-face contact with each other, especially in “unstructured” socializing, such as parties: About 80% of U.S. 15-16-year-olds went to parties at least once a month in the 1990s, compared to 57% now. Those parties are where a lot of youthful experimentation takes place.
What the study doesn’t show is what caused the decline in socializing. The obvious argument, that internet use has displaced it, doesn’t seem to stand up: The evidence suggests that online socializing “typically facilitates or complements in-person socializing among young people.” Heavy internet users are more likely to drink and smoke than their less-online peers.
You should be wary of any study that claims to find a single cause for a complex social trend. But it’s definitely true that Western kids today drink, smoke, take drugs, and commit crime less often than their predecessors did a few years ago; it’s also true that they spend less time in each other’s company. Whether the latter drove the former, as this study claims, or whether both are caused by some more complex set of social forces, they’re real phenomena.
It’s tempting to “blame” these changes on social atomization or the growth of social media, but society has changed in myriad ways in the last 20 years. Parents tend to be older and more educated, and less likely to lay down the law. More children are progressing to post-16 education. Lots of public spaces have been closed to young people. And the health risks of smoking and drinking have become much more widely known. Young people might be much lamer now than they were, but they’ll probably live longer.