DEAR DATA DOG: Why do so many kids sport tattoos?

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Kids - go figure. We don't even know how many of them are getting decorated. The FDA's own Center for Food Safety & Applied Nutrition had to rely on "an unpublished 1990 survey of 10,000 U.S. households," which found that 3 percent of the general population, and 5 percent of males, sported tattoos (http://vm.cfsan.fda.gov). That's a government agency relying on a decade-old rumor. U.S. News and World Report came closer to something useful on the topic in 1997 when it reported that tattooing was the sixth fastest growing retail business for the year.

A 1994 study, McConnell and Armstrong's "Tattooing in Adolescents," polled 642 adolescents in six Texas high schools. Its findings: While 16.4 percent of these teens already had tattoos, 33 percent of the remaining uninked were still "interested in tattooing." (Whether they were interested in it as a career choice, art project, or extracurricular activity for credit is unclear.) The average age for first tattoos was 14 years, with 57 percent sticking with one tattoo (so far), while 39 percent had already gone on to two or more.

A second survey, reported in 1997 (Armstrong and Murphy's "Tattooing: Another Adolescent Risk Behavior Warranting Health Education") polled 2,101 teens from eight junior and senior high schools across the United States. This time 10 percent of respondents reported having tattoos, 55 percent of those sporting a tattoo were girls.

Why do kids decorate their bodies with permanent art? Forty-four percent "just wanted one," and 16 percent did so "for the heck of it." Twenty-three percent wanted to be independent and/or express themselves. ("Just wanted one to express my independence for the heck of it" must not have been a choice.) For many, independence was best expressed by pack behavior: 37 percent were with friends who got tattooed at the same time. About the same number of kids were tattooed in (ordinarily) concealed places as those with exposed tattoos (51 percent, compared with 49 percent). Only 17 percent of parents signed consent forms for the inking, just 28 percent were even aware that their kids intended to get tattoos, and 38 percent of parents were still in the dark when the survey was conducted. Not surprisingly, friends of those with tattoos were more supportive of the decision than family.

The most common reason for not getting repeatedly punctured with a sharp inked needle was "permanent marking," at 2 percent. Parental disapproval, at 16 percent, managed to score higher than pain (12 percent) but lower than disease (18 percent). Only 3 percent of those polled found cost to be an obstacle.

In November 1999, "Tattooing and Body Piercing" appeared in Clinical Nursing Research (once again co-authored by the ubiquitous Myrna L. Armstrong, a professor at Texas Tech University). This study looked at tattooed and/or pierced students at 18 American universities and one Australian university (where most students were pierced "down under"). It excluded earlobe piercing and temporary tattoos, and piercing was defined as holes created by puncturing the skin to permit the wearing of jewelry (rather than holes made in the skin to permit the theft of jewelry, which is robbery).

The reason these college students get tattooed or pierced: 50 percent saw it as a means of self-expression, and 48 percent "just wanted one." The latter reason suggests that for many, getting some body art requires the same careful consideration as eating a Snickers bar. Some 76 percent of respondents didn't bother telling their parents that they intended getting inked or stuck (much better to spring it on them at Thanksgiving).

America's Blood Centers can't be too pleased by all this blood-letting - they're not getting any of it (www.americasblood.org). Their 1998 survey, conducted by Louis Harris & Associates, found that just 39 percent of those aged 18 to 29 had ever given blood. (By contrast, 52 percent of Baby Boomers had given blood at least once.) Fifty-four percent of those who hadn't given blood in the last year found it too inconvenient to do so. (Perhaps it conflicted with their piercing appointments.) In 1999, USA Today reported that 6 percent of the first six month's deferrals at Louisville's Red Cross center were due to tattoos and piercings, and that 68 percent of those who deferred were under the age of 30.

College students considering exactly where to place a tattoo or piercing, would do well to heed the results of the 1999 Business Attire Survey, conducted by UCLA and reported by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (www.naceweb.org). When asked their attitudes towards a candidate's appearance during interviews, 90 campus recruiters preferred men and women without visible body art - including "multiple earrings" (unless accompanied by multiple ears, presumably). As might be expected, the recruiters are being a little conservative - and perhaps a little unimaginative. Wouldn't they be intrigued if a candidate walked in sporting a tattoo of a Web site?

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