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Drug use, drinking, smoking, sex on decline among Gen Z

Call them Generation Zilch. 

No smoking, drinking, drugs or sex for today’s pre-teens and high schoolers.

According to a new study in the journal Social Science & Medicine, people born between the mid-1990s and mid-2010s are partaking in far less risky behaviors than their wild-and-crazy elders.

The change, the researchers believe, can be chalked up to a combination of school pressures, stricter laws and parental finger-wagging, among other factors. 

Still, the study found that there is one commonality driving all of these buttoned-up behaviors: Today’s overly scheduled and phone-obsessed youths are less likely to engage in face-to-face hang time with their friends.

One possible reason Gen Z isn't smoking or drinking as much is a reduction in "unstructured" social activities.
One possible reason Gen Z isn’t smoking or drinking as much is a reduction in “unstructured” social activities.
Getty Images/iStockphoto

The findings deduced that drinking, which can then lead to cannabis use and sex, happens most at “unstructured” in-person social activities. And today’s kids are much less party-hearty than past generations: 80% of American 10th graders in the 1990s reported attending a rager with friends at least once a month. That number shrunk to 57% by 2017.

The review of data from numerous studies encapsulating the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain and 30 European countries paints a picture of youths, mostly 12 to 16 years old, behaving beautifully.

For example, adolescent cigarette smoking declined more than 80% from 1999 to 2019 worldwide. 

In pint-pouring England, young people claiming that they’ve drank alcohol within the past week dropped from 25% in 2003 to 8% in 2014. 

Around the world, younger teens are drinking and smoking far less than in years past.
Around the world, younger teens are drinking and smoking far less than in years past.
Getty Images/iStockphoto

Pot use in the United States has taken a hit, too. Just 34% of 15- to 16-year-olds in 2019 said they’d puffed the magic dragon, whereas the number was 42% in 1997.  (However, more states, including New York, have legalized recreational marijuana use since 2019 when this data stops.)

And only about 20% of 14- to 15-year-old Americans reported having ever had sex — down from 37% in 1993.

While the paper found that a plunge in the number of unchaperoned get-togethers has led to the new nun-like habits, there’s no single cause for the anti-social boom. For instance, while some pundits are quick to blame the internet, this study disagreed and actually linked increased time spent online to above-average substance use.

A more likely roadblock to their rambunctiousness is greater dedication to school. Studies cited by the journal said that today’s students are more concerned about their future ambitions, due to an increase in competition among well-educated candidates, and they see after-hours boozing as a hindrance to their success. 

Another contributor is that so-called “initiation activities” — such as getting a driver’s license and working a job — have become delayed for younger generations, although it’s unclear why. Drinking, smoking and getting it on have gone down in conjunction with not having a car, cash or other “adulting” responsibilities. 

Rules have gotten rougher, also. When it comes to booze and alcohol, laws passed since the 1990s have made it harder to get and use both, while a barrage of advertising campaigns have highlighted their dangers. These efforts have had a proven and demonstrable effect on reducing consumption among young people — or, possibly, have forced their parents to keep a more watchful eye over their teens.

Whether or not these careful tendencies will prove to be lifelong habits is unclear. But good luck asking a Gen Z colleague to get after-work drinks with you.

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