WASHINGTON — American teenagers seem to get no thrill from driving in an electronic age when their friends are a finger tap away 24-hours a day, an era when Twitter, Instagram and texting have displaced the mall and the malt shop as hangouts.

On the other hand, a new report suggests, maybe it’s just that driving has gotten too expensive.

“It is the economy, not a preference for smartphones or other technology, that is keeping young people from driving,” says a study out Thursday from the Highway Loss Data Institute, an insurance industry research group.

“I don’t see any evidence that the young people are losing interest in cars,” General Motors’ chief economist, G. Mustafa Mohatarem, told the institute.

That belief – it’s “the economy, stupid,” as Bill Clinton strategist James Carville famously said – runs counter to the conventional wisdom of recent years that the U.S. teenage and post-college crowd are more urban-centric and less enamored of the car culture than any generation since World War II.

The institute report suggests an eventual reversal in trends that have seen a 12 percent drop in licensed high school seniors and a 23 percent drop in the number of miles driven by those younger than 35. The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety said in July that just over half of teenagers are licensed by the time they reach 18, an age at which two-thirds of teenagers were licensed 20 years ago.

The institute report shows that teens and recent graduates fared far worse in the job hunt during the recession than their elders. Tracking unemployment among young people against the declines in driving, institute Vice President Matt Moore sees a connection.

“It looks like teens just can’t afford to drive,” he said. “Paying for their own cars, gas and insurance is hard if they can’t find a job. As the economy picks up again, it’s possible that more teenagers will get behind the wheel.”

The institute bolsters its conclusions with a number of scholarly studies, including one that found that relatively recent state laws that restrict nighttime driving by young drivers or the number of teen passengers they carry had a minimal effect in deterring young people from getting driver’s licenses.

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