Decline in delinquency: Changing what it means to be a teen

The kids of Gen-Z take fewer risks than previous generations, and this change is going to be good for them long term. Adolescents are known for taking risks (Defoe et al., 2019). Some teens skip class, drink alcohol, or even get into fights. But even for those teens who do these kinds of risky behaviors, it’s not all because of an inability to understand the consequences. Instead, it’s linked to their emotions (Figner & Weber, 2011) and especially so when they’re around people their age (Riedijk & Harakeh, 2018). This risky behavior around their friends helps adolescents bond with each other.

Skipping curfew to hang out with friends signals to them that they are important – more than the TV time or weekend freedom parents might take away in punishment. These bonds are strengthened by this show of loyalty and the shared exciting – or maybe even adrenaline inducing – experience, increasing the individuals’ social capital later in life. It’s so important that the lack of this kind of adolescent deviancy has been previously linked to poor social skills and social anxiety (Mercer et al., 2017). These bonds made in adolescence are integral for developing into a stable adult and are useful as social capital as they progress in adulthood. These days, however, adolescents and young adults are taking far fewer risks.

This has been the trend since the early 90s, and some researchers were concerned. Rule breaking in adolescence is common – so common there is a term for it: adolescent limited anti-social behavior. This means that there is an upswing in this kind of deviant behavior in the teen years that for most of us fades away in our early- to mid-twenties (Moffitt, 1993). This change over the lifespan in rule breaking and even mildly criminal behavior is normal. So, researchers asked now: what could it mean that teens and young adults are taking fewer risks than before?

A recent article shows another side to these rule following teens. Researchers at the University of Olso in Norway analyzed teen behavior and linked it to life outcomes decades later. They found that these rule followers, or “delinquency abstainers” as they were called in the study, were no worse off, and sometimes even better than, than their moderately delinquent peers if – and this is important – if they had strong social bonds (Pedersen et al., 2020). Even so, the delinquency abstainers who did not have these strong social bonds did better than the folks who were highly delinquent.

For decades researchers thought these moderately risky youth were doing so well later in life because of – or at least strongly tied to – their risky behavior in adolescence. What we’re learning now is that it is the social bonds we create that matter, and these bonds can be made in other ways. Risky behavior can be a quick and easy way to develop strong ties with other people, but these bonds can be developed in a prosocial way instead. Teens are creating their bonds through volunteer groups, sports teams, schools and work environments, and even through political activism. A generation of children and young adults building relationships in this way may shift the culture of adolescence and what it means to be a teen. That teens are getting less delinquent over time may be good for them in the short term, and for society as a whole in the long term.


Defoe, I. N., Semon Dubas, J., & Romer, D. (2019). Heightened Adolescent Risk-Taking? Insights From Lab Studies on Age Differences in Decision-Making. Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 6(1), 56–63.

Figner, B., & Weber, E. U. (2011). Who takes risks when and why? Determinants of risk taking. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 20(4), 211–216.

Mercer, N., Crocetti, E., Meeus, W., & Branje, S. (2017). Examining the relation between adolescent social anxiety, adolescent delinquency (abstention), and emerging adulthood relationship quality. Anxiety, Stress and Coping, 30(4), 428–440.

Moffitt, T. E. (1993). Adolescence-limited and life-course-persistent antisocial behavior: A developmental taxonomy. Psychological Review, 100(4), 674–701.

Pedersen, W., Hart, R. K., Moffitt, T. E., & von Soest, T. (2020). Delinquency Abstainers in Adolescence and Educational and Labor Market Outcomes in Midlife: A Population- Based 25-year Longitudinal Study. Developmental Psychology.

Riedijk, L., & Harakeh, Z. (2018). Imitating the Risky Decision-Making of Peers: An Experimental Study Among Emerging Adults. Emerging Adulthood, 6(4), 255–265.