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Youth and Risky Behaviors; Differences Over a Decade in Drinking Rates and More

Like other national surveys, the annual Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance (YRBS) data shows significant dropoffs in youth drinking rates over the long term (See June 13 AII Update). YRBS data also indicate what's been happening with other teen behaviors, including tobacco and drug use, driving, dating and more. This broader view puts drinking trends, and perhaps policy priorities, into context. Below are some comparisons between 2015 YRBS findings - measured in the percentage of those in grades 9 thru 12 reporting the activities ? and those of a decade earlier.

The recent, ongoing progress made in reducing youth drinking is even more remarkable when compared to the lack of progress in reducing other risky behaviors: marijuana use, tobacco use, suicide attempts and experiencing physical/sexual violence. Perhaps the most impressive drinking stat of all is the decline in the number of students who say they started drinking before age 13. YRBS reports a dropoff of nearly one-third in this measure over the last decade alone. Many experts view delaying onset of drinking as a critical prevention goal. The tobacco figures are tricky because vaping, not measured in 2005, has become so popular. Excluding vaping, there is also a significant drop in use of cigars, cigarettes and smokeless tobacco during these years, a dropoff of over one-third in fact. As we've noted, the risks of vaping as an alternative to tobacco use are hotly debated.

Texting wasn't part of the 2005 surveys. But the 41.5% of teens who admitted texting or e-mailing while driving in 2015 were of 61% of those who drove at all. So the texting/e-mailing rate was nearly 2/3 of the teen drivers. And high school seniors are now 6X more likely to text or email while driving than drive when drinking. It would be fascinating to know more about interplay among these behaviors and how that may have changed over the years. CDC, which reports the data, observes that the risky behaviors are "frequently interrelated," and the surveys do include questions about drinking or using drugs before having sex. But the data does not show, for example, what % of students smoke heavily, drink heavily and use marijuana, and how that figure may have changed over the years. Finally, while many link drinking with teen drugging, sex and violence, trends are not matching up.
% of 9th - 12th graders Rate Chg
2005 2015 2005-2015
Current drinking (at least one drink/last 30 days) 43.3 32.8 -24.2
5+ drinks (at least once last 30 days) 23.5 17.7 -24.7
Rode with drinking driver (at least once last 30 days) 28.5 20 -29.8
Drove while drinking (1+ times last 30 days) 9.9 7.8 -21.2
Drank before age 13 25.6 17.2 -32.8
Current tobacco use (includes vaping) 28.4 31.4 10.5
Current pot use (at least once last 30 days) 20.2 21.7 7.4
Overweight 13.1 16 22.1
Texted or e-mailed while driving NA 41.5
Seriously considered suicide (last 12 mos) 16.9 17.7 4.7
Attempted suicide (one or more times) 8.4 8.6 2.4
Experience physical date violence (females, last 12 mos) 9.3 11.7 25.8
Forced to have sexual intercourse (female, ever) 10.8 10.3 -4.6

These findings raise a number of questions. Why has there been so much progress in reducing teen drinking and drinking/driving compared to some other behaviors, especially since public health advocates have been so unsuccessful in having their "environmental" policies adopted? Could it be that oft-scorned education/awareness programs are working? Are communications companies and the government investing as much (or enough) in anti-texting programs as alcohol companies and others have invested in responsible drinking/anti-drunk-driving programs? Ref 1  

Publishing Info

  • Year: 2016
  • Volume: 33
  • Issue #: 6
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