How Safe is Your Teenager? Know the Risks

When our children are younger and playing nearby, it’s easy to glance around to see what they’re up to. Or we can listen for the tell-tale quiet that betrays when parental intervention might be in order. 

But when kids are in their teens, it’s harder to tell what issues they may be facing.

A new survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) doesn’t tell you what your kids are doing exactly, but it does reveal what risks teens in 9th to 12th grades are facing these days. The CDC takes a similar survey every other year.

The survey measures teens’ health risk behaviors relating to tobacco, alcohol and drug use and behaviors that could lead to unintentional injuries, unintended pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases. The survey also tracks dietary behaviors and the youths’ physical activity.

Teen Smoking

The survey found some good news relating to smoking. Cigarette smoking is at its lowest level since the CDC’s National Youth Risk Behavior Survey began in 1991. Just 11 percent of the students said they had smoked cigarettes in the previous 30 days.

However, 24 percent said they had used e-cigarettes, also known as vaping, in the last month. 45 percent said they had tried an e-cigarette at least once.

E-cigarettes use battery power to vaporize a fluid that’s inhaled like cigarette smoke. The vaper can include addictive nicotine and one of thousands of flavorings such as bubble gum, “Kaptain Krunch” or grape. Studies have found nicotine can have a powerful and detrimental effect on developing brains in youth and young adults.

Teens who use e-cigarettes are six times more likely to switch to traditional cigarettes than teens who never used e-cigarettes.

Teens are the primary users of e-cigarettes. Only 4 percent of working adults use e-cigarettes.

Because of the risks, the FDA will regulate e-cigarettes and other electronic pipes, pens, hookahs and cigars beginning in August 2016. The sale of e-cigarettes to minors will be banned then as well.

Smoking remains the leading preventable cause of death in the U.S., claiming about 480,000 lives each year.

Teen Alcohol Use

The survey found that 63 percent of students had consumed at least one drink during their lives. The percentage has dropped since the first survey in 1991, when it was 82 percent.

33 percent had consumed alcohol during the past 30 days. The 1991 number was 51 percent. 

Of the students who had used alcohol, 17 percent had their first experience (other than a few sips) before age 13. In 1991 that figure was 33 percent.

About 18 percent of teens in the survey had consumed five or more drinks within a couple of hours at least once in the past 30 days. The 1991 number was 31 percent.

Risky Sexual Behaviors

The percentage of teens who are currently sexually active (having had intercourse during the past three months) has been falling since the survey began in 1991 when it was 38 percent. The percentage is now 30 percent. About 41 percent of teens say they’ve had intercourse at least once.

Among high school students who are currently sexually active (had intercourse during the past three months), condom use has fallen from 63 percent in 2003 to 57 percent in 2015.

The numbers of sexually active students who had used alcohol or drugs before their last sexual encounter dropped from 25 percent in 1999 to 21 percent in 2015. The percentage has been relatively stable the past couple of years. 

Only 10 percent of students had ever been tested for HIV. The number is down from 13 percent in both 2011 and 2013.

Prescription Drug Abuse

Prescription drug abuse among teens dropped from 20 percent in 2009 to 17 percent in 2015. Nationwide, 17 percent of students had used prescription drugs without a doctor’s prescription at least once. Drugs such as Oxycontin, Percocet, Vicodin, codeine, Adderall, Ritalin, and Xanax are the most commonly abused.

Texting and Driving

The risks of texting while driving seem obvious, but 42 percent of students who had driven a vehicle during the past 30 days had texted or emailed while driving. The percentage was the same in 2013.

Nutrition and activity habits

The students surveyed say they’re eating fruits and veggies. 95 percent had eaten fruit or had 100 percent fruit juice in the previous week. About 93 percent had eaten vegetables in the past week.

Soda drinking is down. Having one or more sodas per day is down from 27 percent of teens in 2013 to 20 percent in 2015.

When it comes to being sedentary, about 42 percent of the teens had spent three hours or more on an average school day playing video or computer games or using a computer for non-school activities. Unfortunately, that percentage is up from 22 percent in 2003.

About 14 percent had not participated in at least 60 minutes of pulse-raising physical activity over the past week.

Around 14 percent of the teens were obese and another 16 percent were overweight.

Risks Vary

Of course no child is a statistic, but knowing what the risks are can help you be aware of the challenges your child faces. 

Your health care provider can provide guidance in helping you and your child understand how these behaviors can affect their health and well-being in the near and long term.


Meet the Author

David Morton Rosenberg, DO, is a pediatric specialist at the Aurora Health Center-Third Ward in Milwaukee, WI.

Read more posts from this author

The information presented in this site is intended for general information and educational purposes. It is not intended to replace the advice of your own physician. Contact your physician if you believe you have a health problem.

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