Kids these days…: The evidence on teen behaviors

teenagersAt one time or another, we have all heard someone say, “Kids these days…” in the lofty tone that suggests children from generations past were better behaved, more responsible and less troubled than today’s youth.  Maybe you’ve even said something similar yourself; I know that I have.

What you may find surprising is that today’s youth are not making more bad decisions than prior generations.

The Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System is a nationally-representative survey of teen-agers in grades 9 through 12 that tracks a variety of behaviors including risky decisions that can lead to unintentional injuries, risky sexual behavior, alcohol and drug use, tobacco use, unhealthy diets and inadequate physical activity.  It also monitors the prevalence of obesity and asthma among teens.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control has been conducting the survey since 1991. At this point, we have data that show how youth behavior has changed over the past 23 years. You might find the results surprising.  I know I did!  Here’s a run-down of what we know:

  • Fewer kids are smoking. In 2013, only 41 percent of kids have tried smoking (even one puff) — down from 70 percent in 1991. And 16 percent considered themselves smokers, down from 28 percent.
  • Fewer kids are drinking. In 2013, 66 percent of kids said they had tried alcohol — down from 82 percent in 1991. And 21 percent had five drinks or more in a row, down from 31 percent in 1991.
  • Kids take more safety precautions than they used to. In 2013, kids were significantly more likely to wear a bike helmet, wear a seatbelt, and avoid driving with someone who has been drinking alcohol compared to 1991.
  • Violent behavior has decreased. In 2013, 18 percent of kids report carrying a weapon — down from 26 percent in 1991. And 25 percent report being in a physical fight in the last year — down from 43 percent in 1991.
  • More kids are smoking marijuana. Forty-one percent report trying it and 23 percent report using it regularly — both increases since 1991. Cocaine use among teens peaked in 2001 and is now back to 1991 levels of approximately 5 percent.
  • More kids were obese and overweight in 2013 compared to 1991.
  • A slightly lower percentage of kids are having sex (47 percent in 2013 compared to 54 percent in 1991.) But in 2013, kids were less likely to have sex before the age of 13 and more likely to use a condom or another form of birth control.
  • The percentage of teens who have attempted suicide has remained steady at about 7 percent since 1991. But significantly fewer teens report seriously considering suicide.

“The times have changed, but much about the processes of growing up has not,” explained Janis Whitlock, a research scientist in the Bronfenbrenner Center for Transnational Research and Director of the Cornell Research Program on Self-Injury and Recovery. “Adolescence will always be a time of increased risk-taking, though the particular nature of the risks taken will always reflect contemporary preferences and trends.”

The bottom line: Today’s teens aren’t doing so badly. In contrast to 25 years ago, although they are more likely to be obese and more likely to use marijuana,  they are less likely to abuse alcohol, engage in violent behavior and smoke . They’re also more likely to take safety precautions, including practicing safe sex.  This is good news – our public health prevention efforts seem to be paying off!

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