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Teenagers: Engaging less in high-risk activities since 1991

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

One in 8 smoked frequently in the early 1990s; it's now just over 1 in 20, with 4 percent smoking daily. Use of tobacco overall, including smokeless tobacco, cigarettes or cigars, is 22.4 percent, compared to 1997's 41 percent.

A teen's brain

Thanks to what the National Institute of Mental Health calls powerful new technologies, researchers are learning a lot about the growth of the brain and connections between development, function and behavior.

"The research has turned up some surprises, among them the discovery of striking changes taking place during the teen years," NIH says in "The Teen Brain: Still Under Construction." "These findings have altered long-held assumptions about the timing of brain maturation. In key ways, the brain doesn't look like that of an adult until the early 20s."

It's not fully developed until 25 or 26.

Parts of the brain do not all develop simultaneously. Basic functions come first. Only later will the section of the brain responsible for impulse control and planning grow up.

While teens are at "close to a lifelong peak of physical health, strength and mental capacity," the rates of death by injury jump from ages 15 to 19. Crime rates are highest for young males then, while drug and alcohol use has a growth spurt. Behavior and risk impact brain development and a child's future. Genetics, experience, family, friends, community and culture all combine to determine the brain's actual structure, the institute says.

Behaviors can impair brain development, says Khaleghi. If you take a developing brain and add regular or binge alcohol use, for example, it may lower IQ. But adolescents "don't have the cognitive faculties that allow them to do a cost-benefit risk assessment. They aren't able to accurately judge a high-risk situation; therefore, they're not able to say 'I am in the middle of a party at a friend's house. This is not a surrounding I know well and I traveled an hour-and-a-half to get here, so it's probably better to have my wits about me. I don't really know these people.' They don't do that ... and there's a domino of increasing likelihood that something goes sideways."

Everyone is doing it?

Khaleghi, a therapist and a mom, knows it sometimes seems to kids that everyone else is doing something, whether it's drinking or having sex. Statistically, it's far from true and teens should know that, she said.

For example, numerous reports note a decrease in teen pregnancy and abortion rates. As the risk-behavior survey shows, teen sexual activity rates are down.

Kathryn Kost, a Guttmacher Institute senior research associate who co-wrote a recent report on teen pregnancy, births and abortion told the Deseret News there are "very substantial and continuing declines" that began in the early 1990s when teen pregnancy rates were high. She said change resulted from better education of youths regarding sex.

Bill Albert of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy said teens need the credit for making better choices.

Not all kids drink or use drugs, but adults need to ask themselves what's driving those who do, said Khaleghi.

"My belief is kids drink to deal with emotional upset or emotional upheaval," she said. She believes there are similar drivers for younger-than-expected sexual activity. "Something is going on in life that created a great deal of emotional stress."

Strong ties to family, community, religion and school are deterrents to risky behavior. So are parents who establish clear boundaries and monitor their children, said Khaleghi.

It's important for parents to keep communication open so children know they can discuss issues. She suggests small "side-by-side" talks, like in the car, starting when a child is young.

Email: lois@deseretnews.com, Twitter: Loisco

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