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Teens will text while driving (but at least they wear seat belts)

June 07, 2012|By Melissa Healy, Los Angeles Times/For the Booster Shots Blog
  • Teens' texting is one of the new worries that have come under scrutiny as a "risky behavior." About 60% of high school seniors say they text while driving, and electronic media has become a forum for bullying.
Teens' texting is one of the new worries that have come under scrutiny… (Ricardo DeAratanha )

Kids these days! They heed your warnings to buckle up and to call for a ride if their lift home has been drinking. But then they go and text their BFF while driving to soccer practice after school. Efforts to keep them safe are indeed reducing injuries and death among American adolescents, a new study says. But there are new risks, some posed by new technologies, that we never thought to warn them about.

This is the kind of mixed picture of youth "risk-taking behavior" the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released Thursday. Only 8% of American high-schoolers own up to never wearing a seat belt -- down from 26% in 1991. In the 30 days preceding their response to government survey-takers, 24% had gotten into the car with a driver who'd been drinking, and that's down from 40% who had done so when asked in 1991.

And yes, 8% said they had driven a car after consuming alcohol in the past 30 days. But in 1991-- just 11 years after Mothers Against Drunk Driving was established, more than double that percentage -- 17%-- said they had done so.

But the proliferation of digital communications devices has raised new dangers worthy of researchers' scrutiny: 1 in 3  high schoolers said they had texted while driving in the past 30 days -- the first time the designers of the "Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance" report thought to ask in the 20 years they've been tracking adolescents' habits. (The biggest culprits: high school seniors, among whom 56% of girls and 60% of boys had texted while driving in the previous 30 days.)

Surveyors have long tracked behaviors, such as carrying a weapon, which might lead to violence or injury (in 2011, 16.6% said they had toted a knife or gun so in the past 30 days -- down from 27.1% in 1991). But the survey has also begun to take account of new, digital ways in which teens can hurt and menace one another: 16.2% of students reported they had been bullied on social media sites, via text, email or instant messaging.

And while boys took a strong lead in getting into physical fights (40.7% of boys said they had been in a physical fight in the past 30 days, vs. 24.4% of females), girls are most affected by digital bullying: 22.1% of girls said they had been electronically bullied, vs. 10.8% of boys.  The group most vulnerable to such behavior: 10th-grade white girls, roughly 1 in 4  of whom said they'd been bullied via electronic media.

In another unexpected shift, an American high school student is more likely to have puffed marijuana in the past 30 days (23.1%) than to have smoked cigarettes (18.1%). Worries about sex and drug use remain central to the report of risky behaviors: 47.4% of high-schoolers have had intercourse, and 1 in 5 has taken a prescription drug without a doctor's order.

But even those concerns have begun to make room for worry about such risks as sedentary behavior, poor eating habits, indoor tanning and failing to wear sunscreen.

--Using a computer or video console for more than three hours a day for something other than schoolwork is now deemed a risk behavior;  31.1% of high-school-aged teens own up to it.

--Drinking at least one can, bottle or glass of (non-diet) soda pop a day -- a measure increasingly linked to obesity-- was a risk behavior to which 27.8% of U.S. high-schoolers pleaded guilty (11.3% said they drank three or more sugar-sweetened beverages per day).

--13.3% of high-school students had used an indoor tanning device.

--Nine in 10 high-school students wore no sunscreen when out in the sun for more than an hour at a time.

--And in what is perhaps the least-surprising finding: 67.6% of high school students routinely get fewer than eight hours of sleep during the school week -- a risk behavior associated with poorer academic performance, automobile crashes, obesity and unsightly bags beneath the eyes.

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