What Teens Really Say About Sex, Drugs And Sadness

Jun 16, 2018
Originally published on June 16, 2018 5:51 pm

Want to know what the teenagers in your life really think about sex and drugs?

Are you sure?

Well, researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have a pretty good idea, thanks to the Youth Risk Behavior Survey. Every other year, thousands of teens in public and private high schools across the country take this nationally representative survey. The CDC just released results for 2017, and here are a few of the highlights:

Sex

Teens' experiences with sex are changing, and the news is almost all good, says Kathleen Ethier, director of CDC's Division of Adolescent and School Health.

"Fewer are initiating sex," Ethier says, "fewer are currently sexually active, they're having fewer partners, and they're using more effective hormonal birth control methods."

In 2007, nearly 48 percent of teens said they'd had sex at least once. A decade later, it's 39.5 percent. One change in the data that Ethier's not happy about is a recent decline in condom use.

In 2007, 61.5 percent of teens said they'd used a condom during their last sexual encounter. By last year, that rate had dropped to 53.8 percent. Ethier says this is due, at least in part, to "a decrease over time in requirements that school cover HIV and [sexually transmitted diseases] in health education programs."

According to the report, young people aged 15-24 account for half of the roughly 20 million new STDs reported each year.

One more red flag, Ethier says: More than one in 10 young women (11.3 percent) reported being forced to have sex.

Drugs

When it comes to illicit drugs — like cocaine and heroin — teen use is way down, from 22.6 percent in 2007 to 14 percent in 2017.

For the first time, though, the survey also asked teens if they have ever misused prescription opioids. Fourteen percent said they had.

"We don't know what this 14 percent number means, but we were quite surprised by it," Ethier says, adding that CDC has more work to do to understand what these new data say about the opioid crisis and teens' role in it.

Violence

The survey also asked high-schoolers about bullying and violence at school. One in 5 said they'd been bullied at school. Fifteen percent said they'd been bullied electronically.

The rate of students who said they'd been threatened or injured with a weapon at school has dropped significantly in the past decade. But students of color are still far more likely than white students to say they missed school because of safety concerns at school or in their communities.

Mental Health

Perhaps the biggest red flags were in the section devoted to mental health.
Roughly a third of teens surveyed said they'd experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness.

"I think that's really significant," says CDC's Ethier, "and certainly not what we want to see if we're trying to send our kids into adulthood in the most healthy way."

The news is even worse for students who identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual.
Nearly two-thirds reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness.
In fact, in every category, LGB teens were at higher risk than their heterosexual classmates. They were twice as likely to report being bullied in school or electronically, three times as likely to seriously consider suicide and four times as likely to attempt suicide.

"It's shocking and alarming and tells us that things are terribly wrong," says Ellen Kahn, director of the Children, Youth & Families program at the Human Rights Campaign Foundation. "We seriously need to address this."

Kahn says these data are a stark reminder of the lack of protections at the federal, state, district and school level for LGB teens and of why, she says, these protections are so sorely needed.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Do you want to know what teenagers really think about sex and drugs? Researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention actually have a pretty good idea. Every other year, thousands of teens in high schools across the country take the Youth Risk Behavior Survey. The CDC just released results for 2017, and, as NPR's Cory Turner reports, there were a number of surprises.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: First, sex - and here, the news is almost all good, says Kathleen Ethier. She's director of CDC's Division of Adolescent and School Health.

KATHLEEN ETHIER: Fewer are initiating sex. Fewer are currently sexually active. They're having fewer partners, and they're using more effective hormonal birth control methods.

TURNER: One change in the data that Ethier is not happy about is a decline in condom use. She says that's likely because many schools have stopped educating kids about the risks.

ETHIER: There has been a decrease over time in requirements that school cover HIV and STD in their health education programs.

TURNER: When it comes to illicit drugs like cocaine and heroin, teen use is way down compared to a decade ago. For the first time, though, the CDC also asked teens if they have ever misused prescription opioids, and 14 percent said yes.

ETHIER: We don't know what this 14 percent number means, but we were quite surprised by it.

TURNER: One in 5 teens also said they'd been bullied at school. But students of color are far more likely than white students to say they missed school because of safety concerns. Some of the biggest red flags were in mental health. Ethier says a third of teens reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness.

ETHIER: I think that's really significant and certainly not what we want to see if we're trying to send our kids into adulthood in the most healthy way.

TURNER: The news is even worse for students who identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual. In fact, in every category, LGBT teens were at higher risk than their heterosexual classmates. Nearly two-thirds reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness. They're twice as likely to be bullied and four times as likely to attempt suicide.

ELLEN KAHN: It's shocking and alarming and tells us that things are terribly wrong, and we seriously need to address this.

TURNER: Ellen Kahn is director of the Children Youth and Families Program at the Human Rights Campaign Foundation. She says these data are a stark reminder of the lack of protections for LGBT teens and why she says they're sorely needed.

Cory Turner, NPR News, Washington.

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