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Fewer teens are having sex and using illicit drugs, but more feel persistently sad or hopeless, CDC reports

REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
On the positive side, a smaller percentage of U.S. teens are having sex or using illicit drugs than in the past.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released its bi-annual National Youth Risk Behavior Survey report last week. As with earlier reports based on this survey, the data revealed both some encouraging and some troubling trends.

On the positive side, a smaller percentage of U.S. teens are having sex or using illicit drugs than in the past.

On the negative side, a greater proportion of teens say they have felt sad or hopeless or have had suicidal thoughts. 

But even the positive trends in this report come with some worrisome caveats. Fewer teens may be having sex, but those who are sexually active are less likely to use condoms than in the past. 

And although the use of illicit drugs like heroin, cocaine and hallucinogens is down, about one in seven of the students surveyed reported that they had misused prescription opioid pain medications.

“Overall, I think youth are making better decisions, particularly about their sexual behavior and their drug use,” said Kathleen Ethier, director of the CDC’s Division of Adolescent and School Health in the National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention, in an interview with CNN

“At the same time, the rate of violence and victimization they’re experiencing hasn’t gone down,” she added. “Bullying hasn’t decreased. The proportion of youth who have ever been physically forced to have sex has not decreased. We’re seeing increases in experiences of persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness and suicide ideation and behaviors, and so that remains a great concern.” 

A closer look at the findings

The CDC report draws on data collected from high school students who took the National Youth Risk Behavior Survey during the years 2007 through 2017. More than 14,750 students in 26 states and 13 large urban school districts completed the 2017 survey. Minnesota was not among those states, as it conducts its own Minnesota Student Survey.

Here are some of the specifics of the CDC report’s key findings:

Sexual behaviors. The percentage of high schools students who reported being currently sexually active (who had sexual intercourse within three months of taking the survey) dropped from 47.8 percent in 2007 to 39.5 percent in 2017. 

Among the sexually active students, 53.8 percent said they had used condoms the last time they had sexual intercourse, compared to 61.5 percent in 2007.

Source: CDC

Ethier told NPR that the drop in condom use is due, at least in part, to “a decrease over time in requirements that school cover HIV and [sexually transmitted diseases] in health education programs.”

Young people aged 15 to 24 account for half of the 20 million STD cases diagnosed each year in the U.S., according to the CDC report.

Illicit drug use. In the 2017 survey, 14 percent of the students said they had ever used an illicit drug (defined as cocaine, heroin, methamphetamines, inhalants, hallucinogens or ecstasy), down from 22.6 percent in 2007. The percentage of students who reported injecting drugs was also down, from 2 percent in 2007 to 1.5 percent in 2017.

But 14 percent of the students in the 2017 survey said they had misused a prescription opioid at least once. This was the first time the survey specifically asked about prescription opioids, so the CDC report is unable to indicate whether misuse of those drugs is increasing or decreasing among teens. In 2015, however, 16.8 percent of the students reported having taken any kind of prescription medication — including opioids but also stimulant drugs like Ritalin and Adderall — without a doctor’s approval.

Bullying.The percentage of teens who say they’ve been bullied has declined only slightly. In 2017, about one in five teens — 19 percent — said they had been bullied at school, a percentage that’s essentially unchanged from 2009 (19.9 percent). 

About one in seven teens — 14.9 percent — reported on the 2017 survey that they had been the recipient of online bullying, down from 16.2 percent in 2011. 

Sexual violence. One of the more troubling findings in the CDC report is the percentage of teens who say they’ve been forced to have sex. In 2017, 7.4 percent of the students reported such an incident on the survey, including 11.3 percent of girls. Those percentages have not significantly improved over the last decade. In fact, they haven’t improved at all for girls. In 2007, 7.8 percent of all teens — and 11.3 percent of the girls — reported that they had been forced to have sex.  

Dating violence. The percentage of students who reported having been physically hurt on purpose (hit, slammed into something, or injured with an object or weapon) by someone they have dated fell from 9.6 percent in 2015 to 8 percent in 2017. Still, almost one out of 10 girls — 9.1 percent — reported in 2017 that they had been physically abused by someone they had dated. 

Depression and thoughts of suicide.  The proportion of teens who say they’ve had persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness increased from 28.5 percent in 2007 to 31.5 percent in 2017. More teens are also reporting that they have seriously considered suicide — 17 percent in 2017 compared to 14.5 percent in 2007.  The percentage was twice as high for girls (22.1 percent) than for boys (11.9 percent).

Those numbers are deeply disturbing. They mean that almost one in four teenage girls and more than one in 10 teenage boys seriously considered suicide in 2017.

Earlier this month, the CDC reported that the suicide rate among 10- to 19-year-olds jumped 56 percent between 2007 and 2016.

FMI: You can read the 2017 National Youth Risk Behavior Survey report on the agency’s website. If you or someone you know might be at risk of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Pat Berg since 2011 on 06/18/2018 - 11:55 am.


    I find it disturbing that this article references “forced to have sex” rather than simply calling it what it is – rape. I wonder what the reasons are for that choice of terminology?

  2. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 06/18/2018 - 12:59 pm.

    What is to be done?

    These reports are not that helpful, at least until the information is used. Let me explain.

    Each of these indicators are reported in isolation. What percentage of teens have risk factors in three or more different areas. When processing the survey data, this could be easily identified!

    My hypothesis is that these multi problem students have the highest risk of things going wrong – getting pregnant, developing an addiction or serious mental illnesses, academic failure, self abuse up to a suicide attempt or dropping out of school. They should be asked if something bad as happened already or if they carry around a lot of anxiety. That would be easy to do.

    Second, with something like bullying or depression, wouldn’t it be helpful to ask why? Let’s say a student is being sexually abused by an adult or another student? That could impact many different factors, as kids may be feeling that they are to blame and they have no one to talk to.

    Next, with certain high risk students, this should result in getting services. Identify a problem, understand it and fix it. That isn’t happening with this model as it is anonymous.

    In the most extreme case, a student could admit to having active shooter fantasies, if such a question were asked, and would anyone know who. So let’s say that a couple kids in your school admit this, and what it done?

    If schools cannot figure out a way to use this to help troubled kids, maybe surveys should be done elsewhere. Two options. As part an annual free example of youth health done by physicians ot perhaps done though our religious organizations, who are about preparing healthy adult believers.

    The reality is that this whole issue is incredibly disturbing and I think that adults are afraid to deal with it. Sort of like don’t ask – don’t tell. This is classic early prevention and early intervention to prevent problems over the next 5 to 75 years of life. What works now will have benefits to the end of this century, after virtually all of us are long gone.

  3. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 06/19/2018 - 10:48 am.

    To What Can These Kids Look Forward?

    Back when a lot of us were growing up, we mostly had reasonably functional parents,…

    and we knew of the few parents in our neighborhoods, and which churches were mean, nasty, cruel, and so selfish that the kids suffered for it.

    Now our national government has been taken over by the equivalent of the WORST parents and MOST PSYCHOLOGICALLY ABUSIVE death cult-style churches in the neighborhoods in which any of us we grew up.

    Kids now see far too many of their parents using up all their resources pursuing vapid, vain, useless dreams and pursuits,…

    while ignoring the needs of others who, often through no fault of their own, are in real need,…

    and watch them blame those who are in need for what life, fate and society has done to them,…

    in order to excuse their own glaring selfishness.

    Kids have had the experience of watching kids their own age get killed while attending the schools in communities much like their own.

    They have a growing awareness that the ecology of the planet we all call home has been damaged and may likely fall completely apart in their lifetimes,…

    and they’ve seen the adults with the power to do so refuse to do ANYTHING about either of those issues,…

    because they’ve all sold their souls to the folk making money off keeping things the way they are.

    The Financial Services Industry seems to look at kids as a piggy bank,…

    from which, while sitting on their backsides doing no useful work, they can freely extract money for the rest of those kids’ lives,…

    as a result of the debt those kids will have to take on to pursue higher education.

    Even in this day and age, NO ONE is routinely teaching kids about how to recognize the needs of their own psyches,…

    let alone how to care for them and feed them,…

    and find support and healing (when needed) for the endless grief-inducing experiences that adolescence visits upon them,…

    (they’ll never have so many reasons for grief until they reach the age when their own generation starts dying off).

    There are a LOT of reasons for kids to be deeply troubled and unhappy at this point in time,…

    and NO ONE is acknowledging that fact,…

    or helping them deal with it in a routine, systematic way.

    (Minnesota, for instance, needs about three times as many school counselors to come anywhere near close to having people available to meet kids’ needs).

    Previous generations routinely used “sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll” to distract them from such problems,…

    then grew up and tried as hard as they could to FORGET what it was like to be a teenager.

    It seems as if today’s kids are too smart to do that to themselves,…

    but, since nobody is teaching them how to roll with the punches and stay emotionally healthy as they take a more realistic approach to the issues they face,…

    those issues are overwhelming far too many of them and leading them to take an early exit.

    If we adults had any decency, we’d all hang our heads in shame for the way we’ve failed our children,…

    but that would mean accepting blame for what we’ve done and what we’ve failed to do,…

    and far too many of us are too psychologically damaged,…

    too locked into eternal adolescent immaturity,…

    to EVER accept blame or admit we were wrong about anything,…

    even if our kids (and our age mates),…

    are dying because of it.

    It’s almost as if America is acting out a death wish,…

    and it seems likely our current leadership is —

    i.e. is rehearsing a deeply buried, deeply dysfunctional feeling that,…

    if the America and the world refuses to be the way WE want it to be,…

    then it would be better if it ceased to exist,…

    (which is the only way they could avoid admitting they might have been wrong about a few important things).

    The real tragedy will be if those of us who DON’T harbor that death wish,…

    let those who do bring it to reality.

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