Teen worrisome behavior studied

American teens are smoking less, drinking less and fighting less, according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention.

However, they’re texting behind the wheel and spending a lot of time on video games and computers, according to the CDC’s latest study of worrisome behavior.

While the latest study indicates teen behavior is improving, parents should note that risky behavior is somewhat normal with teens.

According to a University of Wisconsin-Extension/UW-Madison teen specialist, teenagers are physically, socially and emotionally programmed for behavior that people in other stages of life might find perplexing.

“A better understanding of the teenage brain helps to explain this,” says Rebecca Mather, who is part of a team that conducts research in parenting education and adolescent development.

Scientists say that during adolescence, young people possess high levels of dopamine, which creates a sensation of pleasure in the brain. Experiencing risk can literally create a thrill by increasing the sensation of pleasure via dopamine, said Mather.

“To complicate matters, the section of the brain that controls decision-making is still not fully developed in adolescence,” Mather says. “The quest for thrill-seeking occurs before the brain can make a healthy decision as to what is a reasonable risk.”

The CDC survey shows most forms of drug use, weapons use and risky sex have been going down since the government started doing the survey every two years in 1991. Teens are wearing bicycle helmets and seat belts more, too, the CDC told The Associated Press.

“Overall, young people have more healthy behaviors than they did 20 years ago,” said Dr. Stephanie Zaza, who oversees the study at the CDC.

The results come from a CDC study of 13,000 U.S. high school students last spring. Participation was voluntary and required parental permission, but responses were anonymous.

Highlights of the study include:


Fewer than 16 percent of the teens smoked a cigarette in the previous month – the lowest level since the government started doing the survey, when the rate was more than 27 percent. Another CDC study had already put the teen smoking rate below 16 percent, but experts tend to treat this survey’s result as the official number. There are still about 2.7 million teens smoking.

The survey did not ask about electronic cigarettes, which have exploded in popularity in the past few years.

Meanwhile, more than 23 percent of teens said they used marijuana in the previous month – up from 15 percent in 1991. CDC officials said they could not tell whether marijuana or e-cigarettes have replaced traditional cigarettes among teens.


Among teen drivers, 41 percent had texted or emailed behind the wheel in the previous month. That figure can’t be compared to the 2011 survey, though, because the CDC changed the question this time. The latest survey gives texting-while-driving figures for 37 states – ranging from 32 percent in Massachusetts to 61 percent in South Dakota.


Fewer teens said they drank alcohol. Drinking of soda was down, too. About 35 percent said they had had booze in the previous month, down from 39 percent in 2011. About 27 percent said they drank soda each day. That was only a slight change from 2011 but a sizable drop from 34 percent in 2007.


The proportion of teens who had sex in the previous three months held steady at about 34 percent from 2011. Among them, condom use was unchanged at about 60 percent.


The percentage who attempted suicide in the previous year held steady at about 8 percent.


TV viewing for three or more hours a day has stalled at around 32 percent since 2011. But in one of the largest jumps seen in the survey, there was a surge in the proportion of kids who spent three or more hours on an average school day on other kinds of recreational screen time, such as playing video or computer games or using a computer or smartphone for something other than schoolwork. That number rose to 41 percent, from 31 percent in 2011.

Health experts advise that teens get no more than two hours of recreational screen time a day, and that includes all screens – including Xboxes, smartphones and televisions.


Fights at school fell by half in the past 20 years. And there was a dramatic drop in kids reporting they had been in a fight anywhere in the preceding year – about 25 percent, down from 33 percent two years earlier. The addition of more guards and other security measures may be a factor, said school violence expert Todd DeMitchell of the University of New Hampshire.

Parents should be worried about serious risky behaviors, but Mather of the University of Wisconsin-Extension advises parents not to be overly concerned if their teens engage in innocent risky behaviors.

In fact, taking risks can be a healthy part of development by helping young people define their identity, practice independence and learn from their mistakes, she said.

“The key is to maximize the opportunities for your child to engage in healthy risk, which leads to growth,” says Mather.

For some young people, taking a risk may be as simple as asking someone out on a date, snowboarding down a steep hill or auditioning for a part in a play.

To learn more about issues affecting teens and preteens, consider joining the “Parenthetical” online community. “Parenthetical” features weekly postings about parenting topics based on research and the collected lessons and wisdom of parents.

For more information on “Parenthetical,” contact Beth Rieth, Family Living Educator, Marinette County UW-Extension at (715) 732-7510 or