Fewer High School Students Engage in Health Risk Behaviors; Racial and Ethnic Differences Persist

A teenage girl and several teen boys sitting in a classroomFewer U.S. high school students are engaging in health risk behaviors
compared to their counterparts from 15 years ago, according to the 2005 National
Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS), released today by the Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention (CDC). Despite an overall decrease in health risk
behaviors among high school students since 1991, racial and ethnic differences
continue to be evident.

Two highlights of the survey involved seat belt use and alcohol use. High
school students appear to be getting the message to buckle up. The 2005 National
YRBS found only 10 percent of high school students said they rarely or never
wore a seat belt when riding in a car, a dramatic decline from the 18 percent in
2003 and 26 percent in 1991. The percentage of students who report current
alcohol use has also declined dramatically (43 percent in 2005 vs. 51 percent in
1991) since the first YRBS survey.

Other improvements seen during the past 15 years include a decline in the
percentage of high school students reporting ever having sexual intercourse. In
2005, 47 percent of students said they had ever had sexual intercourse, roughly
the same as in the 2003 National YRBS, but down from 54 percent reporting ever
having sexual intercourse in the National YRBS survey in 1991. In addition, 63
percent of sexually active students reported that they or their partner had used
a condom during last sexual intercourse (same as the 2003 National YRBS),
compared to 46 percent in 1991.

“The overall survey results are encouraging because they show us that
persistent efforts to get young people to adopt healthier behaviors can achieve
positive results,” said Howell Wechsler, Ed.D, MPH, director of CDC’s division
of adolescent and school health. “However, the results also illustrate some of
the challenges. One, it does take persistence to achieve results. And two,
despite the overall improvements in health behaviors of teens, racial and ethnic
differences continue to exist.”

Compared with white and Hispanic high school students, black high school
students are least likely to use tobacco, alcohol, cocaine and other drugs, but
most likely to report sexual risk behaviors and sedentary behaviors such as
watching television three or more hours per day. White students are less likely
than black or Hispanic high school students to report physical fighting, sexual
risk behaviors and being overweight, but more likely to engage in frequent
cigarette smoking and episodic heavy drinking. Hispanic students are more likely
than black or white students to report attempted suicide and the use of drugs
like cocaine, heroin and methamphetamines.

“The reasons for these racial and ethnic differences are complex. More
research is needed to assess the impact of education, socio-economic status,
environment, and cultural factors that may contribute to health risk behaviors
among high school students,” Wechsler added.

National, state and local YRBS’s are conducted every two years among high
school students throughout the United States. These surveys monitor health risk
behaviors that lead to unintentional injuries and violence; tobacco, alcohol and
other drug use; and sexual behaviors that can lead to unintended pregnancy or
sexually transmitted diseases. The surveys also measure high school students’
dietary behaviors and physical inactivity that can contribute to overweight.

Nearly 14,000 U.S. high school students participated in the 2005 National
YRBS. Data are presented only for black, Hispanic and white students because the
sample size of students from other racial/ethnic populations was too small for a
meaningful analysis. Parental permission was obtained for students to
participate in the survey. Student participation was voluntary, and responses
were anonymous. States and cities could modify the questionnaire to meet their
needs. The 2005 report includes national data as well as data from surveys
conducted in 40 states and 21 large urban school districts.

The National YRBS is one of three HHS-sponsored surveys that provide data on
substance abuse among youth. The others are the National Survey on Drug Use and
Health (NSDUH), sponsored by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services
Administration and a primary source of statistics on substance use among
Americans age 12 and over (www.oas.samhsa.gov/nhsda.htm), and the Monitoring the
Future (MTF) Study funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and conducted
by the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research
(http://monitoringthefuture.org). MTF tracks substance use among students in the
8th, 10th and 12th grades.

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