While Child Trends chalks up the drop to less sexual activity and more contraceptive use, The New York Times did a treatment on the topic that tied together the lower rates of teen births with the amelioration of child poverty—a 59 percent drop nationwide from 1993 to 2019. “Does cutting teen births reduce child poverty, or does cutting child poverty reduce teen births?” the article asks.
And doesn’t answer, as we don’t know. While it does seem clear that larger trends around teens having sex later would lead to fewer pregnancies, why teen behavior has changed so much as a whole is a second question that is, for now, unanswered.
The Social Science & Medicine paper does devote time to examining it, though, coming up with several interesting threads to follow. Here’s what we do know: teens are definitely spending less face-to-face time with friends, which may help explain the lack of partying and its associated behaviors. That is potentially troubling. It is not, however, because teens are on their screens all the time instead of hanging out, as the common narrative goes. “Rather,” the paper authors write, “there is evidence that digital communication typically facilitates or complements in-person socializing among young people.” And there is also evidence that teens who are on the internet heavily are more likely to smoke and drink than those who aren’t.
So perhaps something more wholesome is going on. The paper goes through many other possible factors that could be influencing teen behavior in addition to less hang-out time, including older, better educated parents; more involved fathers; authoritarian parenting becoming less common; declining rates of child physical and sexual abuse; teens seeing the “party lifestyle” as incompatible with their academic and career success; better knowledge of health risks; and a lot more.
We can't come to conclusions without further research. But for now it’s safe to say that today's teens are on the straight and narrow more than we were. And they are likely on the road to longer, healthier lives, too.