Good — and bad — news about today’s teens

Claire McCarthy, MD

Senior Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publishing

Follow me at @drClaire

The results are in from the 2015 National Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS). There is a lot to celebrate — but there are also some trends that parents, and everyone who spends time with or works with teens, should know about.

The YRBS is a nationwide survey of high school students conducted every two years. More than 15,000 students participated in the 2015 survey. The point of the survey is to monitor behaviors that can put the health and safety of teens at risk. It’s a confidential survey that allows teens to admit to things they might not want to admit to their parents and teachers. The more we know what is going on, the more we can put things in place to keep teens healthier and safer.

Here’s the good news:

  • Cigarette smoking among teens has dropped to its lowest level since the survey began in 1991. Back then, 28% smoked; in 2015, that number was 11%.
  • Soda consumption is down too; the percentage of teens having one or more sodas a day dropped from 27% in 2013 to 20% in 2015.
  • Physical fighting is also the lowest it’s been since 1991; it has dropped from 42% to 23%.
  • Fewer teens are having sex. In 1991, 38% of high schoolers reported having had sex; in 2015 that number was 30% (down from 34% in 2013).

This is all good news. But there were also some worrisome trends:

  • While they aren’t smoking as much, they are using e-cigarettes more: 24% reported using one in the past month. This could lead to nicotine addiction and other health problems.
  • They aren’t getting into fights, but they don’t necessarily feel safer: 6% of students reported missing at least one day of school in the past month because of safety concerns.
  • They are having less sex, but they aren’t using condoms: after going up in the late 90s and early 2000s, condom use has dropped from 63% in 2003 to 57% in 2015.
  • Not surprisingly, technology is leading to some risky behavior:
    • Computer use for more than 3 hours a day (for non-school stuff) has nearly doubled, from 22% in 2003 to 42% in 2015. That’s a lot of sedentary time.
    • Among teens that drive, 42% report texting or e-mailing while driving in the past month. That is terrifying.

If you have teens in your life, talk to them about this survey. Find out what they are doing — and talk to them about making choices that keep them safe and healthy, not just now but in the future too. These aren’t easy conversations to have, but they are incredibly important. They could literally save lives.

Even more than conversations, as a society we need to work to put education, laws, services and supports in place to be sure that we are doing everything possible to take care of our youth. They are our responsibility, and our future.

Related Information: Harvard Health Letter


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