THE INC. LIFE

Actually, Science Says Kids Today Have More Self-Control Than in the Past

That’s according to decades of data from the famous ‘Marshmallow Test.’

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BY Jessica Stillman - 05 Oct 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Based only on what you see in the media, you'd probably conclude that kids these days are nearly a lost cause. Screen addled and coddled, today's young people are generally portrayed as largely a bunch of infantile ADHD cases who can't focus for more than a few seconds or handle even basic adult responsibilities.

This story definitely generates a lot of hand-wringing (and clicks), but there's just one small problem with the prevailing narrative that tech and helicopter parenting is ruining our kids. A new study shows that, in one important way at least, it appears to be dead wrong.

The kids are alright... at not eating Marshmallows.

If today's phone addicted kids were really unable to delay gratification thanks to all their exposure to the insta-pleasures of the internet, you'd think they'd do worse than previous generations on the famous 'Marshmallow Test.'

If you haven't heard of it, this classic psychology experiment minorly torments young children by presenting them with a dilemma. A delicious, pillowy Marshmallow is placed in front of them and they are told that they can go ahead and eat it now, or if they can wait about 15 minutes they can score two marshmallows. The longer the kids could wait for the bigger reward, the more self control they were deemed to have.

Wriggling and singing to themselves adorably, kids have been put through this ordeal by scientists for 50 years. Have they been getting better or worse at it?

Researchers out of the University of California, Santa Barbara recently combed through data from nearly 30 Marshmallow Test studies from the past to today to get an answer. According to the results, "children of today are capable of more self-restraint than previous generations, with their ability to delay gratification having increased by about a minute per decade over the last 50 years," reports the British Psychological Society Research Digest blog.

If that comes as a surprise to you, take comfort in the fact that it also came as a surprise to experts in the field tool. Only 16 percent of experts polled by researchers before the study predicted kids would get better at the test over time.

Why did they get it so wrong? The researchers suggest the 'kids these days' phenomenon, as the culprit.

"People's memories for their own and others' abilities in childhood are unduly influenced by their current abilities. While it is easy to look at kids these days and deride their inability to control themselves and decry the downfall of civilisation, it is much harder to accurately recall our own selves as children," said John Protzko,the psychologist behind the study.

While the jury is still very much out on why kids' performance on the Marshmallow Test is improving, this study should nonetheless be a comfort to anyone worried about the ability of kids today to delay gratification and exercise self-restraint.

The results don't mean, of course, that all worries about young people today are unfounded. It's entirely possible to be great at saying no to marshmallows and still be anxious, unhappy, and unprepared for adult life. But hey, at least we can now all be pretty sure that at least the kids are alright when it comes to self-control and focus.

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