According to this recent article in The Atlantic, teenage promiscuity is decreasing. Apparently there is a general “decline in dating” which also “tracks with a decline in sexual activity.” The figures are startling:
The drop is the sharpest for ninth-graders, among whom the number of sexually active teens has been cut by almost 40 percent since 1991. The average teen now has had sex for the first time by the spring of 11th grade, a full year later than the average Gen Xer. Fewer teens having sex has contributed to what many see as one of the most positive youth trends in recent years: The teen birth rate hit an all-time low in 2016, down 67 percent since its modern peak, in 1991.
This might seem like good news. I mean, less sleeping around, fewer teenage pregnancies, fewer lives messed up by intimacy without commitment – sounds like a huge step in the right direction, doesn’t it?
Sadly not. In fact, once we understand the reasons for this decline, and the likely implications of it, it turns out that the drop in sexual promiscuity among teens reflects new patterns of behaviour that are very troubling indeed.
First, we need to understand the reason for these figures. As the article explains, the drop in sexual activity is not a result of a growing awareness of the relational and social carnage that results from having sex outside marriage, neither (sadly) is it a consequence of the church’s effectiveness in manifesting a joyful and fulfilling approach to family life. No, the reason why kids are no longer sleeping around in such great numbers is that they’re lounging around in their bedrooms on their smartphones instead.
The data suggest that the rise in smartphone use has coincided with an increased tendency among adolescents to delay “[taking] on both the responsibilities and the pleasures of adulthood,” a tendency driven in turn by broader economic factors that make it harder for young adults to leave home and set up on their own (something we’ve talked about at Emmanuel before). Instead of growing up towards adult independence, “18-year-olds now act more like 15-year-olds used to, and 15-year-olds more like 13-year-olds. Childhood now stretches well into high school.” Astonishingly, “12th-graders in 2015 were going out less often than eighth-graders did as recently as 2009.”
To put it another way, the reason why teenagers no longer care much about sex is that they no longer care about anything much at all. They’re less interested in learning to drive, less interested in going out with their friends, less interested in drinking and partying and everything else. “Their social life is lived on their phone”, so they’re sitting around in their rooms, friending and swiping, messaging and liking, from the moment they arrive home after school until way into the small hours of the morning.
This marks a truly monumental shift in human behaviour. Human society as a whole has been striving for literally thousands of years to find a way of persuading its newly post-pubescent members to wait until after they’re married before they start having sex. We’ve tried everything – pleadings and promises, threats and warnings – and we’ve failed. True, there have been (and still are) small clusters of exceptions. Many families manage (God be praised) to raise their children in such a way that they wait until after marriage for sexual intimacy, and we can probably all think of churches where (again, God be praised) sexual activity among teens is the exception rather than the norm. But in the overall scheme of things, these are blessed drops in a cursed ocean of youthful sexual promiscuity stretching across pretty much the entire world for the whole of human history.
Until now. For where all else has failed, it turns out that the power of the 5-inch screen exceeds even the intensity of sexual desire among our hormone-charged youth. If you thought that a smartphone was simply a useful tool for checking your email and reading books online, think again. The smartphone is not only (as an increasing number of psychological studies now suggest) making us depressed and upsetting our sleep patterns; it’s re-shaping even the most deeply-rooted aspects of our lives with such unrelenting, brutal effectiveness that we can scarcely have begun to grasp the extent of it.
This becomes even more troubling once we realise that there’s something else our kids are (probably) doing on their smartphones. It turns out that the internet isn’t just a place for instant messaging and online chess; it’s home to countless millions of hours of video. And where’s there’s video, there’s porn. Lots of it. Without wishing to put too fine a point on it, your seventeen-year-old son who’s still lying away in the pale blue glare long after you’ve gone to sleep probably isn’t watching re-runs of The Simpsons.
This means that the age-old plague of teenage sexual promiscuity hasn’t been quenched by the smartphone revolution; it has simply been redirected. Instead of going to endless parties in pursuit of that girl or guy from across town, our sons and daughters can now find any number of virtual quasi-partners waiting for them as soon as they lock the door of their room. Within a few years, your kid will probably be able to afford one of these, and most parents have so little clue what their children have got stuffed under the bed that they wouldn’t even know.
Consequently, as an increasing number of other studies have shown, an entire generation of young people now is growing up with a set of sexual expectations whose perversity is limited only by the twisted imaginations of the porn merchants. The damage will start becoming evident when these young people finally get married, for then their spouses will begin to discover what kind of noxious filth they’ve been consuming for the previous couple of decades: “Hey, could you do the same as the girl in this movie?”
If you’re a parent, you have a chance to do something about this right now. But if your kids have a smartphone, unless you know exactly what they’re doing with it (and please don’t kid yourself here), you probably have less time than you realize. Don’t take any comfort in the fact that they’re not out partying, when you have little or no idea that they’re doing while they’re staying in. For the sake of their future, it’s probably time to sit down and talk with them about how they are going to tame the smartphone beast.
Steve Jeffery is Minister of Emmanuel Evangelical Church in London, England