Lately, Teens Less Likely To Engage in Risky Behaviors

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The number of teenagers engaging in risky behavior has been declining, the Urban Institute says in a report released here last week.

For More Information

Read highlights of the report, "Teen Risk-Taking: A Statistical Portrait," or download the entire report (requires Adobe's Acrobat Reader).

Yet, some of the findings in a study by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, also issued last week, conflict with the Urban Institute's report.

As measured by survey data on behavior such as drug use and sexual activity, risk-taking by U.S. high school students dropped between 1991 and 1997, the Urban Institute report says.

But it notes a disturbing exception: Hispanic teenagers' participation in multiple forms of risky behavior has increased. The number of Hispanic teenagers engaging in five or more risky activities rose by nearly 50 percent over the period studied.

Laura Duberstein Lindberg, the lead author of the report, said more focused research on Hispanic students is needed.

Lori Kaplan, the executive director of the Latin American Youth Center in Washington, agreed, but she added that a disparity in services and a lack of money in Latino communities were important factors in the study's findings.

"Teen Risk-Taking: A Statistical Portrait" looks at 10 of the most prevalent risky behaviors engaged in by teenagers. Those behaviors include regular alcohol or tobacco use, marijuana or other illegal-drug use, fighting and carrying weapons, suicide attempts and suicidal thoughts, and sexual activity.

Meanwhile, the CDC study found an increase in cocaine and marijuana use from 1991 to 1999. It also cites a decline in other risky behaviors, such as sexual activity.

The Department of Health and Human Services commissioned the Urban Institute, a nonprofit policy-research organization based here, to examine teenage risk-taking using data gathered in three recent national surveys: the Youth Risk Behavior Surveys, the National Survey of Adolescent Males, and the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health.

Ms. Lindberg points to several reasons for the decline in students' risk-taking, including the strong economy, changing attitudes, and the expansion of school-based health education. "Hope for the future and opportunity makes a great difference in student's decisionmaking," she said.

Sheppard Kellam, the president of the Society for Prevention Research in Baltimore, agreed. "Poverty at the community level is related to behavior in kids," he said.

Evidence also suggests that teenagers overall are reporting a shift toward more conservative attitudes, Ms. Lindberg said, and that, combined with more opportunity, may be reducing risk-taking. "But we're also talking about this more—opening up channels of communication that we didn't have 10 years ago," she said.

In health education, she said, "schools and families and communities stepped up to the plate."

Positive Behaviors

Although slightly more than a quarter of youths—28 percent—engage in two or more of the risky behaviors identified in the study, those teenagers account for most of the risk-taking, the report says.

But it also notes that even adolescent risk-takers also exhibit positive behaviors, such as getting good grades, being involved with a religious institution, playing a sport, and spending time with their families.

While few students engage in all of the positive behaviors mentioned, 92 percent engage in at least one. Even among students engaging in five or more risky behaviors, 81 percent also engage in at least one positive behavior.

The involvement of teenagers who take multiple risks—even those not attending school—in positive activities challenges the perception that they are disconnected, the report argues.

And it suggests a number of ways to influence risk-taking and contribute to the development of positive habits among teenagers who engage in multiple risky behaviors. Those include: health education and intervention programs, job training and placement, and building on personal relationships with adults and peers who can have a positive influence on their lives.

Vol. 19, Issue 40, Page 6

Published in Print: June 14, 2000, as Lately, Teens Less Likely To Engage in Risky Behaviors
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