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Once, but briefly, it was hip to be square. But times they are a changing. Despite growing up amid the health-kick craze of the 1990s, many young Americans today still think that smoking, drinking, drug use, gambling and even refusing to wear a seat belt are “cool activities,� a recent study finds. For example, according to the study, two-thirds of young women ages 14 to 22 — and more than half of young men — say that a “popular� kid would be more likely than other people their age to drink alcohol. The study was conducted by the Adolescent Risk Communication Institute at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center.

The National Adolescent Risk Survey of Youth, now in its second year, is a nationally representative poll of 900 young Americans ages 14 to 22. The study, conducted by phone between March 3 and June 30, looked at participation levels in five “risk� behaviors: smoking cigarettes, smoking marijuana, drinking alcohol, gambling, and not using seat belts. As a way to gauge peer-group influences, researchers also quizzed respondents as to whether they perceived those who engage in such behaviors as “popular.�

Boys are certainly bigger risk takers than girls, according to the survey. Marijuana use is almost four times as prevalent among young men as it is among young women: 23 percent of 18- to 22-year-old males admit partaking at least once in the prior month, versus just 6 percent of females in that age group. Similarly, young adult males are more than twice as likely as their female counterparts to say that they had gambled for money in the prior month (28 percent versus 13 percent).

Ironically, as kids get older — and supposedly wiser — they tend to engage in risky behaviors at increased levels. While just 18 percent of boys and girls ages 14 to 17 say they had consumed alcohol in the prior month, 58 percent of men ages 18 to 22 — and 43 percent of women — fess up to imbibing. The same participation pattern is seen for marijuana use, gambling and smoking. The exception is with seat belts, where the risky behavior decreases with age, especially among females. Almost half of teen girls ages 14 to 17 (46 percent) say they had ridden in a car sans seat belt at least once in the prior month, compared with 36 percent of 18- to 22-year-old women.

Black and Hispanic young people tend to stay out of trouble more often than their white counterparts. White youths, for example, are more likely to have engaged in binge drinking — defined in this study as four drinks in a row for females and five drinks in a row for males. For 14- to 22-year-olds, more than half of white males (54 percent) and of white females (51 percent) say they have had an episode of binge drinking in the prior month, compared with about a third of black and Hispanic males (35 percent) and females (29 percent). The exception here is gambling: Black and Hispanic male youths were slightly more likely (25 percent) to have bet their money in the prior 30 days than were white males (21 percent).

For more information, call Dan Romer at the Adolescent Risk Communication Institute, at (215) 898-6776.

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