Every generation is faster-living than the one before it. The rise of digital, mobile and social media has fueled an explosion of high-risk behavior. And with drug culture permeating society, teens are using controlled substances more than ever before.
All reasonable assumptions, and yet … all totally wrong. Today’s teens are actually abstaining from sex and drugs more than at any time in the recent past. According to a December 2015 study from the National Institute of Health, rates of using cigarettes, synthetic marijuana, heroin, MDMA, LSD and opioids are all trending down, as are drinking alcohol and binge drinking (five or more drinks in a row in the past two weeks). The only notes of caution are that the use of Adderall (sometimes used to treat ADHD, but also used recreationally) remains consistently high (7.5% among high-school seniors), as does daily use of marijuana, which high-school seniors now prefer to daily cigarette smoking, 6.0% vs. 5.5%.
Meanwhile, the headline of a recent Washington Post article says it all: “‘There isn’t really anything magical about it’: Why more millennials are avoiding sex.” According to the article, Millennials are projected to have fewer sexual partners than Gen Xers or Boomers (8 vs. 10 or 11, respectively); only 41.2% of high school students in 2015 have had sex, down from 54.1% in 1991; and only 11.5% have had sex with four or more partners, down from 18.7% in 1991. Researchers speculate on many causes behind this trend, from widespread concern about date rape to young people spending more time alone on their phones and computers and less time “irl” (in real life), to impossible beauty ideals perpetuated by social media (think highly curated, filtered, retouched Instagram photos).
What can brands learn from this somewhat surprising, counterintuitive trend?
Go easy on provocative messaging. Since the 1960s, appeals to youth have frequently mined a rebellious, “sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll” theme. But today’s Millennials simply aren’t a rebellious, “sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll” generation … think more friendship, augmented reality and EDM. Attempts to be provocative can backfire badly, and come across as objectifying women, promoting rape culture and perpetuating unattainable (and culturally biased) beauty standards. In an era where any teen with a phone can see any type of content at a moment’s notice, nothing you can do in your marketing can really shock or provoke anymore.
Communicate personal relevance and benefits. If you’re selling clothing, don’t just put it on scantily clad models … talk about how your clothing will make teens feel better about themselves and their body image. Same with marketing a movie or TV show; don’t dwell on the attractiveness of the cast or objectify their looks, but instead focus on the relevant characters and great storytelling. Study teens’ need-states, and then market to those need-states. It’s fine to use organic (even somewhat blunt or edgy) humor to deliver this message, but throwing in some drug humor or nudity and calling it a day misses the boat on every level.
Use research to uncover deeper meanings. On the surface, these declines in risky behavior are good news. However, this reflects a shallow understanding, and stopping there fails to uncover some red flags. The “clouds in the silver lining” are that many teens are failing to cultivate deep relationships due to financial pressures, school/job stress, mental and emotional issues, low self-esteem, bullying and over-reliance on technology. So don’t just stop at the headline; conduct an extensive, ongoing research program with in-depth interviews and ethnographies to go deeper, and find out the details that are driving those headlines.
The declines in high-risk behavior among teens are (on balance) good news for society, and can be good news for the brands that fully understand them.