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The 'kids these days' effect: Why adults have criticized kids for millennia

When it comes to remembering the kids of your generation, don't always trust your memory.

Teenage girl using her phone in a restaurant
Pixabay
  • Since at least 624 BCE, adults have been complaining about the "kids these days."
  • A recent study examined the "kids these days" effect, finding two broad mechanisms that seem to contribute to adults' negative perception of kids.
  • Interestingly, adults seem to maintain their biases about the younger generations even when they're made aware of those biases.


Got a problem with the "kids these days?" If so, then you're one of the millions of adults across many cultures who have been criticizing kids for their supposedly worsening tastes and habits for millennia, since at least 624 BCE. Of course, not all of these generations can be right about their superiority. So, why do adults tend to denigrate the younger generations?

A recent paper published in Science Advances suggests two main reasons: It's easy for us to notice other people's shortcomings in areas in which we excel, and our memories of youth aren't always accurate.

In a suite of studies, the researchers asked a sample of Americans to rate themselves and today's kids in three measures: intelligence, respect for elders, and reading. The results first showed that when people give themselves a high rating in a certain trait, they're more likely to rate kids low for that same trait.

Excel and denigrate

The authors wrote: "Authoritarian people especially think youth are less respectful of their elders, intelligent people especially think youth are less intelligent, well-read people especially think youth enjoy reading less."

But this effect was trait-specific, meaning that a well-read adult wasn't necessarily more likely to also believe that kids were less respectful of their elders. The authors also noted that the tendency for intelligent adults to think today's kids are less intelligent was especially interesting, considering that average IQ scores have been going up for decades. However, on average, adults in the study believed that today's kids are about as smart as previous generations.

Faulty memory

So, if excelling at something makes people more likely to think that today's kids are bad at it, why don't they apply that same bias to the kids of their own generation? The reason has to do with our biased memories, and the ways we project our current selves onto the past.

"Excelling on a dimension also leads people to project back to both themselves and their peers in the past, believing, for example, "because I like to read now everyone liked to read when I was a child," the researchers wrote.

With faulty memories, we tend to be more generous to kids of our own generation.

"We are imposing our current self on the past," John Protzko, a postdoctoral researcher at UC Santa Barbara and coauthor of the paper, told Discover. "We're sort of idealizing kids of the past."

Correcting the bias

People seem to maintain their negative biases about today's kids even when they're made aware of these biases. But, interestingly, there does seem to be a way to soften bias among adults who don't mind their rose-tinted glasses: Gaslight them.

In one of the studies in the recent paper, the researchers asked adults to complete a test to see how well-read they were. But the participants were given false feedback: some were told they scored in the bottom third of the national population, some in the top third. After the participants were (falsely) told they scored low on the reading test, they were more likely to regard today's kids more favorably.

"These things aren't necessarily happening consciously," Protzko told Phys.org. "It's a memory tic—you take what you presently are and you impose that on your memories," he said, "It's why the 'decline' seems so obvious to us. We have little objective evidence about what children were like, and certainly no personal objective evidence. All we have is our memory to rely on, and the biases that come with it."

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