Parents, Your Teen's Decision Making Is Better Than You Think

By Erik Lief — Aug 17, 2016
There's some encouraging health news from the CDC about teenage behavior that should make parents breathe a bit easier. It's a report that shows that today's teens are basically making better health choices then previous teenage groups. And they are also making much better decisions than teens did a generation ago.

This morning, my daughter left home to go to college.

Watching my oldest child head to another part of the country, Jenna's departure produced feelings that are new and strange and sad and thrilling -- but none that are at all special, or unique, nor more poignant or significant than those being felt right now by millions of other parents in my position around the United States.

Courtesy: Shutterstock Courtesy: Shutterstock

Personally, all told the overriding feeling is an unsettling and haphazard brew of pride, caution, happiness, dread, excitement and -- most importantly, concern -- concern that she'll be safe, as she hopefully makes smart, healthy choices while embarking on her first extended stay away from home in her lifetime.

That said, as Jenna boards the plane (and in my mind, figuratively looks over her shoulder seeking guidance), there's some encouraging health news about teenage behavior that's making me breathe a bit easier. Called the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System, the recently released information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is a biennial report that "monitors six types of health-risk behaviors that contribute to the leading causes of death and disability among youth and young adults." They are:

  • Behaviors that contribute to unintentional injuries and violence
  • Sexual behaviors related to unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV infection
  • Alcohol and other drug use
  • Tobacco use
  • Unhealthy dietary behaviors
  • Inadequate physical activity

And for parents like me, the good news is most of the data in the report shows that today's teens are safer and making better health choices then previous teenage groups. Meanwhile, they are also making much better decisions than teens did a generation ago.

More than 10,000 high school students were surveyed in 2015, just as a group that size has been queried every other year since 1991. And while today's parents may be working off perceptions that their teenagers are growing up "faster" then they did, while making more dubious choices in a world filled with added temptation, the data indicate just the opposite.

However, on the flip side, there are areas where teen choices are not so great. Moreover, this information comes from self-reported data, which itself skews the results somewhat, but overall the behavioral trends are encouraging.

Courtesy: Shutterstock Courtesy: Shutterstock

Pertaining to high school teenagers, here are some of the important findings of those surveyed:

  • Lower Rates of Tobacco Use: 10.8 percent smoke cigarettes. That's down from 15.7 percent two years ago; down from 23 percent over a decade (2005); and down from 36.4 percent since 1997.
  • Decrease in Trying Marijuana, Cocaine: 38.6 percent report having tried smoking pot, down from 40.7 percent in 2013. Meanwhile, those who tried cocaine also fell, yet slightly so, to 5.2 percent from 5.5 percent two years earlier.
  • Fewer Experimenting with Alcohol: 63.2 percent reported drinking at least once, down from 80.4 percent 20 years ago.
  • Decreased Binge Drinking: 17.7 percent reported having had "5 of more drinks in a row in past month," which was down from 20.8 percent two years ago, and down from 25.5 percent over the last decade.
  • Less Sexual Activity: 41.2 percent said they've engaged in intercourse at least once, as compared to 54.1 percent of teens in 1991.
  • Near-Universal Use of Seat Belts: 93.9 percent of teens "regularly wear a seat belt," which is up significantly from 89.8 percent in 2005, and up drastically from 74.1 percent in 1991. (In fact, with the exception of survey years 1995 and 2003, seat-belt usage has constantly increased.)

Now, aside from this Youth Risk Behavior report, overall there has been a drastic decrease in teen births. In 2015, only 2.3 percent of teenage girls in the U.S. delivered a child, as compared to 5.6 percent of teenage girls 20 years earlier.

"It's exciting and really unprecedented to see these types of declines on a health issue," said Ginny Ehrlich, chief executive of the Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, as quoted in Vox's June 9 report on the Youth Risk Survey. "Last year alone, the decline was 9 percent. Having spent a decade in child obesity prevention, where change happens much slower, this feels monumental." A significant contributor to this trend is that teenagers, according to the CDC, are using contraceptives at a swiftly increasing rate.

Now, do problem areas still remain? Of course they do.

Condom use "during last sexual intercourse" has slipped from a high of nearly 63 percent of teens in 2003, to just 56.9 percent last year. Obesity rates are higher now than ever, and far too many teens admit to participating in the very dangerous activity of texting while driving. And in a separate survey, full-time college students aged 18-22 report that they drink more often (59.8 percent vs. 51.5) than those of the same age who don't attend college. All of which produces unease for me as my daughter takes her first steps on a college campus.

However, all in all, when you step back and take a look at the big picture, it appears that our teenagers are being smarter than we think.

I know as a parent, I get wrapped up -- maybe too much -- in what's not going well, and trying to anticipate danger before it presents itself (which is not completely a bad thing). That said, in the time Jenna was on her way, aloft over the Eastern seaboard, what I've learned is that apparently our kids are behaving better than we thought. And most of all, we should be encouraged in general by the choices they are making during the most trying and demanding times of their young lives.

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