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Teen-age Trends of Risky Behavior a 'Mixed Bag'

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Alcohol use stayed relatively steady over the decade, with about half the teens reporting current alcohol use. About one in three of the students had recently had at least five or more alcoholic drinks on one occasion. That would meet the definition of binge drinking. The number of teens who had recently been in a car when the driver was drinking alcohol was about one out of three, but that was an improvement since 1991.

Many other injury-related behaviors improved, some significantly. The number of kids who carried a gun or some other weapon to school decreased, and the number of kids who got in fights was lower. However, slightly more kids felt less safe at school.

More teens wore their seatbelts and bike helmets, and more participated in strengthening exercises, but far less attended physical education classes daily. Only one in four ate enough fruits and vegetables, and 10% were overweight.

Many of the rates varied greatly, depending upon where the teens lived. Smoking, some drug use, and smokeless tobacco use varied more than five-fold or greater among some states. Sexual intercourse before age 13 also varied between states, by as much as 3% to 16%. Whereas 2% of the teens in Nebraska felt unsafe at school, that number went up to 16% in Florida.

"Any time you take a portrait of youth risk taking, you will never find consistency across the board because you will always find a mixed portrait of what is going on with young people, so I've got to say that's not particularly a surprise," Michael Resnick, PhD, a sociologist and professor of pediatrics at the University of Minnesota's Adolescent Health Program, tells WebMD.

"I'm heartened by the good news that in some areas, such as sexual behavior and decision making, it looks like a growing number of young people get the message about not placing themselves at risk. But I have to qualify that by saying that at the same time ... our rates are still stunningly higher than our European counterparts, so we shouldn't be too self- congratulatory about this stuff," Resnick says. Resnick also is director of the National Teen Pregnancy Prevention Research Center.

Kann says the statistics offer no easy answers or obvious reasons. "Health risk behaviors are determined by a real complex interaction of personal factors, social, cultural, economic, environmental, things like peer norms, adult practices, media influences in the broadest sense of the word, including the web, availability of effective programs, state and local laws, and enforcement practices. All those things together determine whether or not a kid practices the behavior in the first place, and then whether or not we can be successful in improving the overall rate of those behaviors over time."

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