Today’s high school students have less sex and take fewer drugs than those of decades past, but they face some newly recognized risks, including misuse of pain pills, according to a report released Thursday.
The findings, from a set of surveys updated every two years by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), paint a picture of teen life that is safer than it used to be, but still fraught with risks ranging from suicidal thoughts to sex without condoms.
"We are seeing real improvements in some areas, but real concerns in others," said Kathleen Ethier, director of CDC’s division of adolescent and school health.
Condom use is one area where teens are taking more risks than in the recent past: Use among sexually active teens fell to 53.8% in 2017, down from a peak of 62.8% in 2005.
In general, the results show slight changes in sex and drug use since the last survey in 2015, but major changes since the survey started in 1991 and even in the past decade. It also shows that some newer risks, including online bullying and texting while driving, are not decreasing, despite campaigns against them.
Among the findings, based on a nationwide survey of nearly 15,000 students in grades 9-12:
• 39.5 percent said they have had sex, down from 54 percent in 1991 and 48 percent in 2007.
• 14 percent had used cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, inhalants, hallucinogens or ecstasy, down from 22.6 percent in 2007.
• 14 percent had used prescription pain medications, such as codeine, Vicodin or Percocet, without a prescription or in ways different than prescribed. This was the first time the survey asked about such drugs, which are contributing to an opioid overdose epidemic. Use among teens appears "substantial, it's high – we didn't expect it to be that high," Ethier said.
• 19 percent had been bullied on school property in the past year, about the same as in 2009. Nearly 15 percent had been bullied online, about the same as in surveys taken since 2011.
• 31.5 percent said they felt “sad or hopeless” for at least two weeks at time – a symptom of possible depression – up from 28.5 percent in 2007. That finding is "very concerning," Ethier said.
• 17.2 percent had seriously considered suicide, down from 29 percent in 1991, but up from 14.5 percent in 2007. Other CDC data show completed teen suicides have been rising in recent years, along with a rise in adult suicides.
The survey noted the 15 percent of students who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual or unsure of their sexual identity face increased risks on several fronts, including those related to violence, substance use and suicide-related behaviors.
Schools, communities and parents need to create more places "where students feel safe and connected," Ethier said.
It's important to note the survey only includes teens who are in school, not those who have dropped out and may face higher risks, said Pamela Matson, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Johns Hopkins Children's Center in Baltimore who was not involved in the survey.
Matson also said parents feeling relieved by the declines in some risky behaviors among teens should keep in mind that the risks do not disappear at high school graduation.
"Emerging adulthood can be a risky period," she said. "We want to maintain connections and model healthy relationships."