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What Body Art May Say

Study* Tattoos and piercings may indicate teens are prone to risky behaviors such as drinking and fighting, researchers say.

June 10, 2002|LINDA MARSA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Tattoos and body piercings have become so commonplace they seem almost innocuous--even pop star Britney Spears, an idol to millions of preteens, has a navel ring.

But by shrugging off such adornments, parents may be doing their kids a disservice, experts say.

Young people who sport tattoos or have their noses, tongues, eyebrows or bellybuttons pierced are more likely to have sex, smoke cigarettes or marijuana, use drugs, binge drink, skip school, get into fights and receive poor grades, according to a study in the June issue of Pediatrics.

"They're a marker that these kids are prone to risky behaviors," says Elizabeth B. Myhre, one of the study co-authors. "While there's nothing inherently wrong with body piercing or tattoos, they are a wake-up call to parents and physicians that there might be something else going on with these teens."

Researchers at the Naval Medical Center in San Diego surveyed 484 young people, ranging in age from 12 to 22, and found that 13.2% had tattoos, and 26.9% had body piercings.

Of the females, 16.6% had tattoos and 36.7% had body piercings; of the males, 8.1% had tattoos and 10.1% had body piercings.

Compared to their unadorned counterparts, adolescents and young adults with tattoos or body piercings were twice as likely to engage in sexual activity and use "gateway" drugs, such as marijuana, alcohol and cigarettes, the researchers found, and they were three times as likely to use hard drugs, such as Ecstasy, cocaine and methamphetamine.

Males with tattoos were more likely to engage in violent behavior than those without tattoos, and females with body piercings were twice as likely to get into fights. Also, girls and young women with tattoos or body piercings had a higher incidence of eating disorders and thought more about suicide. And the younger both genders were when they got their body art, the more likely they were to be involved with gateway drugs.

Since most adolescents with these adornments are older than 17, however, the tattoos and piercings could be a sign that young people are already in trouble.

"It's probably not the first risky thing they've done," said Dr. Victoria Paterno, a Santa Monica pediatrician. "They've already been drinking, and smoking cigarettes or marijuana. If you haven't picked up on other cues earlier, then you're probably pretty clueless as a parent."

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