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

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"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."

Time is important, says Resnick, as the change in sexual attitudes took place over many years, and "had time to trickle down that unthinking behavior could be lethal." He predicts cocaine use also will decrease in the coming years because of what he called the "younger sibling syndrome." Basically, younger siblings will see how the drugs, especially crack, messed up their older sibling's lives, and will choose to break the cycle.

Breaking the cycle and lowering risky behavior is, after all, the overall goal, according to Kann. "I think this report helps us understand what kids are doing, and with that information, we can develop programs and policies that will address their needs. It's far better to build programs based on knowing what kids are really doing rather than what us grownups might think they're doing," Kann tells WebMD, noting that there has been progress in the last decade.

Resnick says a key to more progress is enhancing the "protective factors" in teen-agers' lives. "Kids who report a strong sense of connection to parents, to family, to school -- and I should add that this sense of connectedness cross-cuts all family forms, single parent, dual parent foster families, adoptive families -- when kids report this sense of connection and closeness ... they engage in less risk taking behavior," Resnick tells WebMD. "The good news is there are strategies we can use that will have multiple payoffs on multiple levels for all of our kids, whether they're black, white, Asian, Hispanic or American Indian, boys or girls."

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