There's been an outbreak of good behavior among American teens, although public health officials perceive new patterns of risky business on the part of U.S. adolescents.
In a report issued Thursday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the number of teens smoking, fighting and having sex has declined significantly in recent years--in the case of smoking, reaching its lowest point since the federal government started collecting such data in 1991.
Driven down by anti-smoking campaigns and changing norms, the percentage of high schoolers using tobacco has dropped from its 1997 peak of 36.4% to 15.7% in 2013, the CDC said.
The report also said that 34% had had sexual intercourse in the last three months, and 59.1% said they had used a condom during their last sexual encounter. While the proportion of sexually active teens has held largely steady over the last couple of decades, the proportion of those that have had sexual intercourse before age 13 (5.6% in 2013) and the proportion of teens who have had four or more partners (15%) have steadily decreased.
Even soda-pop swilling and vegging out for hours in front of the TV are less common pastimes for U.S. teens these days: The percentage of U.S. high school students who logged an average of at least three hours watching TV on a school day has declined from 43% in 1999 to 32% in the latest accounting. And the proportion of high schoolers who drink one or more soft drinks a day dropped from 34% in 2007 to 27% in 2013--a sign that anti-obesity messages focusing on sugary beverage consumption have begun to have an impact.
Evidence of teens' sedentary behavior in front of computer screens abound, however. From 2003 to 2013, the percentage of high school students using a computer three or more hours per day (for non-school-related work) has nearly doubled from 22% to 41%. In all, 14.8% of students said they had been bullied in the last 12 months through email, text, chat rooms or websites.
Behind the wheel, teens courted danger as well. Nationwide, 41% of adolescents who drive owned up to having sent text messages while behind the wheel in the last 30 days. And in some of the 37 states represented in the national Youth Risk Behavior Survey, as many as 61% of high school drivers acknowledged texting while driving in the previous month. The practice was most common among white teens, with 46.7% of girls and 45% of boys saying they had texted while operating a vehicle in the last month (compared with 36% of Latino teens and 29.1% of African American teens).
At the same time, 10% of teens who drive said they had driven after consuming alcohol in the last 30 days. And 21.9% of all high school students surveyed had ridden in a car with someone who had been drinking alcohol.
Despite high-profile instances of violence at schools, the CDC report underscores that students are experiencing less assault than in the past. The percentage of high school students nationwide who had been in a physical fight at least once during the last 12 months decreased from 42% in 1991 to 25% in 2013. Fights on school property have been cut in half during the last 20 years. And the proportion of high school students who were in at least one physical fight on school property during the 12 months before the survey dropped from 16% in 1993 to 8% in 2013.
"It's encouraging that high school students are making better health choices such as not fighting, not smoking and not having sex," said CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden. "Way too many young people still smoke, and other areas such as texting while driving remain a challenge."
Friedman added that the nation needed to invest in programs "that help [teens] make healthy choices so they live long, healthy lives."