Teenagers used to rebel by smoking, doing drugs and getting pregnant.
But modern 14-year-olds are eschewing these traditional forms of acting out – in favour of hacking computers from their bedrooms.
Figures from a study carried out by University College London suggest that more teens of this age have hacked a computer than have had sex or are regular smokers.
One in 20 teenagers in the Millennium Cohort Study, which follows children as they grow up and asks them questions about their lives, told researchers they had hacked a computer in the past year. Just under one per cent had sent a virus.
Two per cent of 14-year-olds of either gender said they had had sexual intercourse, with almost 11 per cent telling researchers they had had any type of intimate sexual contact.
Three per cent said they were regular smokers, and 14 per cent said they had smoked a cigarette at least once.
Other more old-fashioned illegal activities were also less common than cybercrime. Less than three per cent had done graffiti without permission and four per cent had been involved in vandalism. Around two per cent said they were part of a gang, and a similar number said they had ever been in one.
Just four per cent said they had shoplifted in the last 12 months, and just 1 per cent said they had stolen something from another person.
Last year a report from the National Crime Agency said that the average age of suspects involved in National Cyber Crime Unit investigations was 17 years old – 20 years younger than those involved in drugs cases or economic crime cases.
Almost two-thirds of hackers began hacking before they turned 16, the report added.
The figures follow other statistics which suggest that today’s young people are the cleanest-living in modern times, with record-low levels of alcohol consumption, smoking and drug-taking recorded in recent years.
The study found that boys were more likely to engage in most types of risky behaviour than girls, with almost six per cent admitting to hacking a computer, compared to just four per cent of girls.
They were also more likely to have tried alcohol at a younger age. One in five had drunk alcohol before turning 12, compared to 14 per cent of girls.
White teenagers were more likely to have contact with police and more likely to be a gang member than their black African or Caribbean counterparts.
The researchers said the data suggested children who began smoking before the age of 12 were more likely to have a smoking habit by the time they turned 14.
They said “early, experimental engagement” with alcohol and cigarettes could lead to “concerning habits by age 14”, and that primary-school age children should be given help to counter alcohol and tobacco dependence.
Professor Emla Fitzsimons, one of the authors of the research and director of the Millennium Cohort Study, said: “Our findings are a valuable insight into health-damaging behaviours among today’s teenagers right across the UK.
“There is clear evidence that substance use increases sharply between ages 11 and 14, and that experimentation before age 12 can lead to more habitual use by age 14.
“This suggests that targeting awareness and support to children at primary school should be a priority.”
The study follows more than 19,500 children who were born at the turn of the century. This questionnaire was carried out in 2015 and 2016, and further surveys are due to take place this year.
The death of teen rebellion
- The proportion of eight to 15-year-olds who say they have ever smoked a cigarette has fallen from 18 per cent of boys and 20 per cent of girls in 1997, to 6 per cent of boys and 3 per cent of girls in 2016, according to NHS data.
- The percentage of children aged 8 to 15 who reported ever having had an alcoholic drink fell from from 45 per cent in 2003 to 15 per cent in 2016.
- Almost 30 per cent of 11 to 15 year-olds had ever taken drugs in 2001 – by 2014 this had fallen to 15 per cent.
- Teen pregnancy is at a record low, with the conception rate for under-18s halving to reach 21 per 1,000 women during the eight years to 2015, according to the ONS.