WASHINGTON — The number of teenagers engaging in risky behavior--from taking drugs to fighting to having sex--declined steadily in the last decade, according to an Urban Institute study released Tuesday.
The study by the nonpartisan Washington think tank found that adolescents are more likely to abstain from risky behavior now than they have been at any point in the last 10 years.
But the findings show a disturbing exception to this trend: Among Latino youths, participation in multiple forms of risky behavior increased dramatically. The number of Latino teens engaging in five or more risky activities increased by nearly 50% from 1991 to 1997.
"There is a need for more focused research on Hispanic students," said Laura D. Lindberg, the report's lead author.
Commissioned by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to examine the issue of teen risk-taking, the study was based on surveys of adolescents done during the 1990s. It identified 10 risk behaviors and tracked the proportion of teenagers engaged in one or more of them. Those behaviors include regular tobacco use, marijuana and cocaine use, suicide attempts and suicidal thoughts, binge drinking and sexual intercourse.
The study aimed to examine changes in teens' behavior over the decade and to analyze the incidence of multiple risk-taking among teens, Lindberg said. By highlighting patterns of behavior among risk-takers, the researchers hope to help educators and community workers with the job of keeping teens out of trouble.
The report also determined the proportion of student risk-takers who participate in positive social activities, such as attending religious services, playing team sports and spending time with their families. Even among students engaging in five or more risk behaviors, the study found that 81% engage in at least one positive behavior.
"Risk and positive behaviors do co-occur," Lindberg said. She emphasized the potential for educating risk-prone teens as long as they engage in positive activities.
"Social settings create opportunities for health promotion," Lindberg said.
The findings show that for the general population the share of teens abstaining from all 10 risky behaviors jumped from 20% to 25%, with the most recent data suggesting that the vast majority of adolescents engage in either none or just one of them.
Moreover, according to Lindberg, a minority of youths take the majority of risks--that is, the 28% of teens who participate in multiple risky behaviors account for most of the risk-taking by adolescents.
Lindberg stressed that a parent who discovers a child engaging in one risky behavior--smoking, for instance--should be on the lookout for others. And though the number of teens taking no risks has increased, she said, the proportion of teens who engage in five to 10 of the risk behaviors identified in the study has not changed significantly over the last 10 years.
The increase in the number of teens abstaining from all risky behavior was smaller for Latinos than for black and white poll respondents. Most alarming, said Lindberg, is that the number of multiple risk-takers increased by 6 percentage points for Latinos, compared with only a nominal rise for blacks and a 2-percentage-point decline for white teens.
Both Lindberg and Lori Kaplan, executive director of the Latin American Youth Center in Washington, speculated that socioeconomic factors are primarily to blame for the disturbing trends among Latino youths. For instance, they noted that access to medical care is haphazard for some Latinos.
"We were seeing emergency rooms as the primary point of contact with health services," Kaplan said, describing conditions for many of the Latino teens who visit her youth center.
Doctors often play a key role in steering adolescents away from risky behavior, Lindberg said.
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Blacks reported the biggest drop in violent or dangerous behavior, according to a study by the Urban Institute.
* Number of health risk behaviors among 7th- through 12th- graders (in one year):
5+ risks: 4%
No risks: 46%
One risk: 26%
2-4 risks: 24%
Source: Urban Institute