(Not So) Risky Business

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More high school students are learning to "just say no."

Teens are getting a bad rap these days. Today's fast-maturing, media-savvy Gen Ys are into sex, drugs, and violence like no other teen group before, right? Wrong, says a new report by the Urban Institute. In fact, researchers found that teens today are taking fewer risks than their counterparts did in years past.

"The public has this perception that things are falling apart out there," says Kristin Moore, president of Child Trends, Inc. and a member of the report's advisory board. "But when you ask kids themselves, you do find that there's a fairly substantial proportion who aren't engaging in any risk-taking at all."

The report, "Teen Risk-Taking: A Statistical Portrait," looks at longitudinal trends in 10 common risk behaviors that threaten teens' health and well-being - including regular alcohol use, regular tobacco use, marijuana use, suicide attempts, and sexual activity. Data culled from three national surveys, conducted for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services between 1991 and 1997, revealed that 25 percent of students in grades 9 through 12 steered clear of all risk behaviors in 1997, compared with 20 percent who did so in 1991. And the percentage of multiple risk-takers - those who indulged in more than one dangerous act - decreased, from 57 percent in 1991 to 53 percent in 1997.

Among the specific potentially hazardous activities that became less popular in the 1990s were physical fighting (down to 37 percent in 1997 from 43 percent in 1991), and carrying weapons (down from 26 percent to 18 percent). Even sex lost some of its appeal: The percentage of high schoolers reporting past sexual experience dropped from 54 percent in 1991 to 48 percent in 1997 - a change that corresponded with lower teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease rates. The proportion of teens with suicidal thoughts also decreased, from 29 percent to 21 percent - although the percentage of teens who'd attempted suicide remained stable, at around 8 percent.

Not surprisingly, those who did take risks tended to dabble in more than one transgression. Among the 11 percent of students who chewed or smoked tobacco in the last 30 days, for example, 85 percent took other risks as well. Ditto for 89 percent of those who carried weapons to school.

Demographically, multiple-risk takers tended to be male - 31 percent of 7th to 12th grade boys engaged in two or more risk behaviors, compared with 26 percent of girls. They also were older: Boys in grades 11 and 12 were twice as likely as boys in grades 7 and 8 to engage in multiple risk behaviors (42 percent versus 21 percent). Race was also found to play a significant role. Hispanic students showed less of a decline in risk behavior over the six-year period, than their black and white counterparts. While the proportion of white and black students engaging in five or more risks remained stable at about 16 percent over the years, the proportion of Hispanic students doing so grew from 13 percent in 1991 to 19 percent in 1997. The share of Hispanic students in the 9th and 10th grades who'd engaged in five or more risk behaviors nearly doubled.

But back to the bright side. The report shows that nearly all teens - risk-takers or not - exhibited positive behaviors such as involvement in sports, clubs, youth groups, and religious activities. Ninety-two percent of all 7th to 12th graders participated in at least one such activity. Even the 81 percent of students who'd engage in five or more risk behaviors engaged in at least one positive behavior. But in general, the more risk behaviors students participated in, the fewer positive behaviors they reported.

"It will be important over the next several years to strengthen and expand the network of health and other services located where teenagers are most easily reached: Their schools, churches, athletic activities, the workplace, and the like," write the authors. "Services should be built on and reinforce the strengths of these students - their involvement in positive behaviors."

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