According to a report released by the Urban Institute last week, there has been a decline in the number of teenagers engaging in risky behavior. The report highlights that risk-taking among U.S. high school students, based on survey data on drug use and sexual activity, has decreased between 1991 and 1997. However, the report also reveals that there is a concerning exception among Hispanic teenagers, as their participation in multiple forms of risky behavior has actually increased. The study shows that the number of Hispanic teenagers engaging in five or more risky activities has risen by nearly 50 percent over the same period.
Laura Duberstein Lindberg, the lead author of the report, suggests that there is a need for more focused research on Hispanic students. Lori Kaplan, the executive director of the Latin American Youth Center in Washington, agrees with this statement but adds that a disparity in services and a lack of financial resources in Latino communities are important factors contributing to the findings of the study.
The Urban Institute’s report, titled "Teen Risk-Taking: A Statistical Portrait," examines 10 prevalent risky behaviors among teenagers. These behaviors include regular use of alcohol or tobacco, consumption of marijuana or other illegal drugs, involvement in fights and carrying weapons, suicide attempts and suicidal thoughts, and engagement in sexual activity.
On the other hand, a study conducted by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found an increase in cocaine and marijuana use between 1991 and 1999. However, the CDC study also reports a decline in other risky behaviors, such as sexual activity.
The Department of Health and Human Services commissioned the Urban Institute to carry out this analysis on teenage risk-taking, utilizing data collected from three national surveys: the Youth Risk Behavior Surveys, the National Survey of Adolescent Males, and the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health.
Ms. Lindberg identifies several reasons for the decline in students’ risk-taking, including the strong economy, changing attitudes, and the expansion of school-based health education. "Hope for the future and opportunity make a great difference in students’ decision-making," she stated. Sheppard Kellam, the president of the Society for Prevention Research, supports this viewpoint, highlighting that poverty at the community level is linked to behavior in children.
Evidence also suggests that teenagers, overall, are expressing more conservative attitudes, which, combined with greater opportunities, may be reducing the inclination for risk-taking. Ms. Lindberg emphasizes that this topic is now being openly discussed, allowing for better communication channels than what was available a decade ago. She also acknowledges that schools, families, and communities have taken a more active role in health education.
Despite slightly over a quarter of youths, or 28 percent, engaging in two or more of the identified risky behaviors, they account for most of the risk-taking, as indicated by the report. However, the report also emphasizes that even adolescent risk-takers exhibit positive behaviors, such as academic performance, involvement in religious institutions, participation in sports, and spending quality time with their families. While few students engage in all of the positive behaviors mentioned, a significant proportion of students, 92 percent, engage in at least one. Even among those engaging in five or more risky behaviors, 81 percent also engage in at least one positive behavior.
The report challenges the perception that teenagers who take multiple risks, including those not attending school, are disconnected. It also suggests various ways to influence risk-taking and promote positive habits, such as implementing health education and intervention programs, providing job training and placement opportunities, and nurturing meaningful relationships with adults and peers who can positively influence their lives.