National Edition

Teenagers: Engaging less in high-risk activities since 1991

Published: Saturday, Aug. 9 2014 4:20 a.m. MDT

Two teenagers having fun.

DomnitchNastia, Getty Images/iStockphoto

Nearly a third of high school students drink regularly, a quarter had a physical fight in the last year and more than a third are sexually active, according to a national biennial survey of youth and the risks they take.

Older kids, 15 to 19, face many behavior-related negative health consequences and social problems, including sexually transmitted disease or unintended pregnancy. They may live with or die from consequences related to their tobacco, alcohol and drug use; unhealthy diets; physical inactivity and whether they brawl or carry weapons.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says four causes lead to 70 percent of all deaths for those ages 10 to 24: motor vehicle crashes, other unintended injuries, homicide and suicide.

Every two years the CDC conducts the "Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance" survey in schools to create a statistical portrait of what teens are doing. The 2013 survey asked about 104 health-risk behaviors, as well as questions regarding excess weight and whether those surveyed had asthma. Students were polled in 42 states and 21 large urban school districts to create a nationally representative sample.

The survey found that in the 30 days before the survey:

— 41 percent of those who drove had texted or emailed while driving

— 35 percent had consumed alcohol

— 23 percent used marijuana

In the past year:

— 22 percent were offered, sold or given drugs at school

— 20 percent were bullied on school grounds

— 8 percent attempted suicide.

Experts call teen risk behavior a canary in the cavern, warning adults that something is amiss.

“It’s important to pay attention any time you have somebody acting out, either by being involved sexually or using drugs at an earlier than expected age because it’s an indicator that something else is going on in their lives,” said Karen Khaleghi, co-founder of Creative Care, an addiction treatment facility in Malibu, California.

Over time

Despite findings that may set parents' teeth on edge, there's a hefty chunk of good news in the 2013 survey: Across most categories, the percentage of high school-age teens engaging in high-risk activities has dropped or at least not increased over the past two decades.

"Since the earliest year of data collection, the prevalence of most health-risk behaviors has decreased (e.g. physical fighting, current cigarette use, and current sexual activity)," the report notes, "but the prevalence of other health-related behaviors has not changed (e.g. suicide attempts treated by a doctor or nurse, having ever used marijuana and having drunk alcohol or used drugs before last sexual intercourse) or has increased (e.g. having not gone to school because of safety concern and obesity and overweight)."

Suicide is one of the most complex issues in the survey. The number of high school-age students who seriously considered it fell precipitously from 29 percent in 1991 to 17 percent, but the number who actually attempted it rose from 7.3 percent to 8 percent. Attempts that result in an injury requiring treatment increased from 1.7 percent to 2.7 percent in that time frame.

Tobacco use by teenagers was less likely than in the past. More than 2 out of 3 students had tried cigarettes in 1991, 41.1 percent in 2013. While one-quarter in 1991 had smoked a whole cigarette by age 13, fewer than 1 in 10 had in 2013. And asked about smoking in the past month, 27 percent did in '91 compared to the recent 15.7 percent.

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