Generation Z Kids Have Better Self-Control than Gen X, According to Study

With almost near-constant bombardment from the sights and sounds of the internet, you might assume that today's children want everything 10 minutes ago. But research suggests that generation Z can delay gratification better than generation X. 

Psychologists arrived at this conclusion by evaluating the results of the well-known marshmallow test, first given more than 50 years ago. To test the mettle of children between 3 and 5 years old, researchers gave them a treat, such as a marshmallow, cookie or pretzel.

They explained to the preschoolers that they could eat the treat immediately or wait 10 minutes and receive an additional treat. The researchers then left the room to watch the children's response behind a one-way mirror. The sooner they broke, the lower their self-control, the psychologists surmised.

The team behind the research, published in the journal of Developmental Psychology, analyzed the results of the original marshmallow test, done in the 1960s, as well as subsequent versions in the 1980s and early 2000s. None of the children had been taking medication for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Children who took part in the study in the 2000s waited two minutes longer on average than those in the 1960s, and one minute longer than those in the 1980s, the researchers found.

Around 72 percent of 358 U.S. adults who took part in an online survey as part of the study said they expected today's children to wait less than previous generations. Three quarters said they would have less self-control.

phone-child-stock Researchers analyzed the results of "marshmallow" studies conducted since the 1960s. Getty Images

Walter Mischel, the psychologist who created the original test at Stanford University, was a co-author of the most recent study.

The ability to delay gratification in childhood, the authors noted, has been linked to a range of positive outcomes, including greater academic achievement, stronger ability to deal with stress, maintain a healthy weight, engage in social responsibility, and forge positive relationships with peers.

Stephanie M. Carlson, a professor and director of research at the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Child Development and a co-author of the current study, said: "Although we live in an instant gratification era where everything seems to be available immediately via smartphone or the internet, our study suggests that today's kids can delay gratification longer than children in the 1960s and 1980s.

"This finding stands in stark contrast with the assumption by adults that today's children have less self-control than previous generations."

Researchers can't explain exactly why children tested in the 2000s could wait longer for a treat than those tested earlier. A significant spike in IQ scores in the past few decades, linked to such factors as technological advances and globalization, could play a role, the authors suggest. 

Likewise, the rollout of early education programs, which have seen the number of children attending preschool rise from 15.7 percent in 1968 to 50 percent by 2000, and the ability to engage in abstract thought, which is key to many digital programs, could also play a part.

"Although the data are compelling, we do not know exactly why adults thought children today would wait less and have worse self-control, or why the data showed quite the opposite," Professor Carlson said. 

"We offer some speculations, including increases in abstract thought, changes in parenting, and higher enrollment and quality of early childhood education. The sample of children also was limited to relatively higher socioeconomic status families in the U.S."

Mischel, now a professor of psychology at Columbia University, said in a statement: "While the results indicate that the sampled children's ability to delay is not diminished on the marshmallow test, the findings do not speak to their willingness to delay gratification when faced with the proliferation of temptations now available in everyday life."

This article has been updated with comment from Professor Stephanie Carlson. 

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