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Despite What You Think, Today's Teens Are Better Adjusted Than Gen X Teens


Despite media portrayal, today's teens are not selfie-obsessed, cyber-bullying nincompoops. They're actually smarter about risky behaviors than teens of 25 years ago. Eva-Katalin/Getty Images
Despite media portrayal, today's teens are not selfie-obsessed, cyber-bullying nincompoops. They're actually smarter about risky behaviors than teens of 25 years ago. Eva-Katalin/Getty Images

Smoking rates? Lower. Drinking, rates? Lower. Premarital sex and fistfight rates? Lower and lower.

The teenage years used to be fraught with peril. No longer. Today's teens are more like the responsible Shoshanna from "Girls" than the more free-spirited Jessa. Results of the federal government's latest Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS) survey, conducted in 2015, show teens are dialing back on unsafe behaviors. The study was published in 2016.

Consider some of these stats: In 1991, the first year the survey was taken, 27.5 percent of teens smoked cigarettes. By 2015 that figure was 10.8 percent, a 61 percent decline. In 1991, 81.6 percent of teenagers had tried booze. That percentage dropped to 63.2 by 2015. And in 1991, 54.1 percent of teens had already had sex, while in 2015 the figure was just 41.2 percent. This lower sex rate is part of the reason the teen birth rate has dropped so dramatically — 6.2 percent of teenagers in 1991 gave birth, versus 2.3 percent in 2014. Increased use of birth control has also helped.

Of course, it's not like today's teenagers are perfect, or that they have no unhealthy habits. Obesity rates are much higher today than 26 years ago (13.9 percent versus 10.6 percent) and, correspondingly, today's teens eat fewer vegetables. The percentage of teens who have tried marijuana, while not at its peak rate, was 38.6 percent in 2015, compared to 31.3 percent in 1991. And while smoking rates are down, 24 percent of teens are consuming tobacco through vaping via e-cigarettes or hookahs.

But one of the most concerning new, risky behaviors is texting while driving, something not possible in 1991. The 2015 YRBSS survey showed 42 percent of teens who had driven a vehicle during the past 30 days had texted or emailed while driving.

The federal government sends its Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System survey to more than 15,000 high school students every other year, and to date has data from more than 3.8 million high school students. The survey was developed to monitor behaviors that strongly affect the leading causes of death, disability and social problems.

To dig into this topic further, download newest episode of The Stuff of Life podcast "Teen Dream," which takes a look at why we tend to fondly remember our teenage years and forget about all of the confusion, anxiety and angst they often caused.



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