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The good and bad news about U.S. high school students’ risk-taking

REUTERS/Dylan Martinez
In 2015, about 11 percent of high school students reported smoking within the 30 days prior to when they took the survey. That puts cigarette smoking at an all-time low.

The latest government survey of U.S. high school students reveals some promising trends — and some troubling ones.

First the positive trends: Fewer students are smoking cigarettes, drinking soda, fighting, having sex and taking prescription drugs without a doctor’s permission than they were a few years ago.

Now the negative ones: More students are using e-cigarettes and failing to use condoms when they do have sex. They’re also spending much more time playing video games, and a stubbornly high percentage of them continue to text while driving.

These findings come from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS), which was completed by more than 15,000 high school students in 37 states and 19 large urban school districts in 2015. Its purpose is to help the CDC and other public health officials monitor and assess trends in priority health risk behaviors among representative samples of students.

(Minnesota is one of the handful of states that don’t participate in the YRBS. It conducts its own Minnesota Student Survey, which “can provide local data to counties and school districts, and can provide reliable data on small population groups, such as racial and ethnic groups, gay-lesbian-bisexual students, and students facing severe economic hardship” — data the YRBS cannot provide the state, explained Peter Rode, a research scientist at the Minnesota Department of Health’s Minnesota Center for Health Statistics, in an e-mail exchange with MinnPost.)

A precipitous fall

The drop in cigarette use nationwide among students is actually quite startling. In 2015, about 11 percent of high school students reported smoking within the 30 days prior to when they took the survey. That’s a 60 percent drop from the 28 percent who reported using cigarettes in 1991, when the first YRBS was taken.

Unfortunately, however, the 2015 survey also found that 24 percent of high school students reported using e-cigarettes within the past 30 days.

“Current cigarette smoking is at an all-time low, which is great news,” said Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the CDC, in a released statement. “However, it’s troubling to see that students are engaging in new risk behaviors, such as using e-cigarettes.” 

“We must continue to invest in programs that help reduce all forms of tobacco use, including e-cigarettes, among youth,” he added.

Other findings

Here are some other findings from the survey:

Texting while driving.  Of the 61.3 percent of students who said they had driven a car during the 30 days before the survey, two thirds (41.5 percent) also said they had texted or e-mailed while behind the wheel at least once during that time period. That percentage remains essentially unchanged since 2013 (41.4 percent), a discouraging finding given recent public health efforts to discourage such behavior. 

Fighting. Nationwide, 22.6 percent of students — 28.4 percent of males and 16.5 percent of females — had been in a physical fight one or more times during the 12 months before the survey, a number that was down from 24.7 percent in 2013.  Almost 3 percent of the students in 2015 said they had sustained injuries in a fight that were significant enough to require treatment by a doctor or a nurse.

Although the finding that almost 1 in 4 students were involved in a physical fight in 2015 is disturbing, that statistic is significantly lower than the 42 percent who reported having fought within the previous year in 1991.

Weapons at school: Slightly fewer students had been threatened or injured with a weapon on school property in 2015 (6.0 percent) than in 2013 (6.9 percent). Slightly fewer also said they had personally carried a weapon on school property (4.1 percent in 2015 versus 5.2 percent in 2013). 

The survey also found that 5.6 of students (6.0 percent or females and 5.0 percent of males) had not gone to school on at least one day during the 30 days before the survey because they felt they would be unsafe at school or on their way to or from school. 

Bullying. In 2015, 15.5 percent of students said they had been electronically bullied (though e-mail, chat rooms, instant messaging or websites) during the 12 months before the survey, up from 14.8 in 2013. Bullying on school property was reported by 20.2 percent of students, up slightly from 19.6 percent in 2013.

Binge drinking.  In 2015, 17.7 percent of students surveyed had had five or more drinks of alcohol in a row (within a couple of hours) on at least one day within the previous month, down significantly from the 20.8 percent who reported such binge drinking in 2013. 

Prescription drug use. In 2015, 16.8 percent of students reported having taken a prescription drug (such as Oxycontin, Vicodin, Ritalin, Adderall, or Xanax) without a doctor’s prescription one or more times during their life. This was down from 20.2 percent in 2009 and 17.8 percent in 2013. 

One in five students (21.7 percent) said they had been offered, sold or given an illegal drug by someone on school property during the 12 months before the survey.

Sexual behaviors: The percentage of high schools students who report being currently sexually active (who had sexual intercourse within three months of taking the survey) has decreased significantly over the past 25 years, dropping from 38 percent in 1991 to 34 percent in 2013 and then to 30 percent in the latest survey.

Among the students who are currently sexually active, condom use is down, however. In 2015, 57 percent of sexually active teens reported using condoms, down from 59 percent in 2013 and 63 percent in 2003.

Video gaming. In 2015, 41.7 percent of students said they spent three or more hours a day, on average, playing video or computer games or using a computer for non-school-related work. That’s up only slight from 2013 (41.3 percent), but almost double the proportion (22.1 percent) who answered similarly in 2003.

Soda consumption: High school students are drinking significantly fewer soft drinks, both sugary ones and “diet” ones. In 2015, 26.2 percent of students said they had not consumed a soft drink within the seven days before the survey, up from 22.3 percent in 2013 and from 18.6 percent in 2007.

FMI:  The survey’s results were published in the June 10 issue of the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR), where it can be read in full.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 06/13/2016 - 01:46 pm.

    The Case for the Oxford Comma

    “Fewer students are smoking cigarettes, drinking soda, fighting, having sex and taking prescription drugs without a doctor’s permission than they were a few years ago.” Are a lot of doctors giving permission for teenagers to have sex? Is this covered by most insurance plans?

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