Today's teens are having less sex, doing fewer drugs, and drinking less alcohol than they ever have before—but mental health and suicide remain a concern, Margot Sanger-Katz and Aaron Carroll write for the New York Times' "The Upshot."
Most teens don't have sex
According to CDC data, the number of teenagers who report having had sex has declined since 1991, Sanger-Katz and Carroll write. Among high school juniors, 42% in 2017 reported previously having sexual intercourse, down from 62% in 1991.
CDC data show similar declines in students reporting having sexual intercourse at least once among all high school grade levels.
Similarly, the number of teens reporting having had sex with multiple partners has declined. Among high school juniors, 11% in 2017 reported having had four or more sexual partners, down from 22% in 1991.
However, it is true that teenagers have more access to pornography than they ever have before, and they're more likely to sext and share nude photos, Sanger-Katz and Carroll write.
Drug and alcohol use is dropping
And it's not just sex.
Usage rates for nearly every type of drug have dropped noticeably among teenagers, according to the 2018 Monitoring the Future survey from the University of Michigan.
Among 10th graders, only 0.5% have used a hallucinogen in the past month, one-third of the rate in the 1990s, according to the 2018 Monitoring the Future survey. In addition, Monitoring the Future found the percentage of 10th graders who reported having consumed alcohol in the past 30 days dropped to 19%, down from 40% in the 1990s.
Cigarette use has also dropped, with just 4.6% of eighth, 10th, and 12th graders combined reporting having smoked in the past 30 days, according to the 2018 Monitoring the Future survey, down from 28.3% in 1996 and 1997.
However, rates of vaping have increased precipitously, Carroll and Sanger-Katz write, with 19.2% of eighth, 10th, and 12th graders combined reporting having vaped in the past 30 days in 2018.
There is one drug that's usage hasn't decreased, Sanger-Katz and Carroll write, and that's marijuana. In 1991, 15% of eighth, 10th, and 12th graders combined reported having used marijuana in the last year. In 2018, that increased to 24.3%.
See the combined drug use rates for eighth, 10th, and 12th graders.
Suicide rates are increasing
While some rates of risky behaviors are decreasing among teenagers, suicide rates are increasing, hitting their highest level in 20 years, according to CDC data.
Overall, mental health among children is getting worse, Sanger-Katz and Carroll write. According to a study published last year, the lifetime prevalence of anxiety or depression among children ages six to 17 increased from 5.4% in 2003 to 8.4% in 2011-2012.
From 2000 to 2007, rates of teenage suicide were relatively the same, but from 2008 to 2014, rates began to rise, and from 2014 through 2017, suicide rates among teens saw a 10% increase per year. Among girls 15 to 19, that increase has been even more significant, with the overall suicide rate in 2017 being about double what it was in 2000, Sanger-Katz and Carroll write.
In 2017, New Mexico saw the highest suicide rate of teens ages 15-19 with 29.5 per 100,000 persons, followed by Idaho at 23 per 100,000. The states with the lowest teen suicide rate in 2017 were New York and New Jersey, both at 6.5 per 100,000.
Homicide rates among teens have seen a noticeable decrease, however.
Why rates of risky behaviors are decreasing
Experts say there's no one reason for the decline in risky behaviors among teens, Sanger-Katz and Carroll write. Some theorize that positive peer pressure—when fewer people do something and it becomes more stigmatized as a result—could play a role. Another theory is internet use is keeping more teenagers at home instead of out with their friends.
Other experts cite more intensive parenting as a contributor, as well as expanded health coverage, improvements in mental health care, and the removal of lead from gasoline in the 1970s, Sanger-Katz and Carroll write.
According to David Finkelhor, a sociology professor and director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, "In the long term, the trends are quite clear. But even in the short term, we're undergoing a period of dramatic improvements that have not been widely acknowledged or underlined, and it’s too bad" (Sanger-Katz/Carroll, "The Upshot," New York Times, 6/23; Child Trends report, accessed 6/24; Monitoring the Future survey, accessed 6/24).