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Positive Health Outcomes and Declines in Risk-Taking Behaviors Among Teens

June 23, 2000

A note from TheBody.com: Since this article was written, the HIV pandemic has changed, as has our understanding of HIV/AIDS and its treatment. As a result, parts of this article may be outdated. Please keep this in mind, and be sure to visit other parts of our site for more recent information!

Teen Risk-Taking: A Statistical Portrait, a new report released by the Urban Institute, found that teens' overall involvement in risk-taking has declined during the past decade (except among Hispanics), with fewer teens engaging in multiple risk behaviors.

Results were based on analyses of three national surveys: the Youth Risk Behavior Surveys (YRBS) 1991-97, the 1995 National Survey of Adolescent Males (NSAM), and the 1995 National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health).

This report provides a statistical portrait of teen participation in 10 of the most prevalent risk behaviors: alcohol use; tobacco use; illegal drug use; weapon use; suicide attempts; binge drinking; marijuana use; fighting; suicidal thoughts; and risky sexual activity. It focuses on the overall participation in each behavior and in multiple risk-taking.


Findings

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  • Overall risk-taking among high school students declined during the 1990s. There was an increase in the share of students who did not participate in any of the 10 risk behaviors and a sizable decrease in the proportion of students who engaged in multiple risk behaviors. The share of highest-risk students-those engaging in five or more risk behaviors-remained stable from 1991-97. Of note, Hispanic students did not report the same shift toward less risk-taking.

  • Most risks are taken by multiple-risk students. The overall prevalence of a specific risk behavior among teens is due primarily to the behavior of multiple-risk students. For example, among the 12% of students reporting regular tobacco use, 85% were multiple risk-takers.

  • Nearly all teens, even those engaging in multiple risk behaviors, participate in positive behaviors. 92% of students engage in at least one positive behavior, such as earning good grades. Although less so than their in-school peers, most out-of-school boys were involved in appropriate positive behaviors. While multiple-risk teens engage in positive behaviors, participation in positive behaviors declines with increased risk-taking.

  • Multiple-risk adolescents have many points of contact beyond home and the classroom. The assumption that risk-taking teens are socially disconnected is challenged by new findings that map their participation in a wide range of settings, such as the workplace and the criminal justice system.


Recommendations

Based on these trends and patterns in teen risk-taking, the authors provide the following recommendations for parents, educators, and policymakers.

  • Support positive behaviors of non-risk taking teens. Declines in risk-taking mean that the share of students taking no risk has increased. These teens need support and expanded opportunities to continue making responsible and healthy decisions as they mature.

  • Target efforts to reduce specific risk behaviors toward multiple-risk students. Public health and policy efforts to reduce the prevalence of key risk behaviors, such as smoking or violence, cannot address these behaviors in isolation from other risk-taking.

  • Encourage positive behaviors of risk-taking teens, such as time spent on extracurricular or faith-based activities. These behaviors connect students to adults and social institutions and offer opportunities to prevent risk-taking among some students or reduce risk-taking among others.

  • Expand efforts to reach multiple-risk adolescents in nontraditional settings. Teen participation in settings such as the workplace and the criminal justice system offer innovative opportunities for health services and education programs and the development of personal relationships with positive adult role models that can reduce risk-taking.

  • Take new steps to reduce risk-taking among Hispanic students. Programs that are responsive and sensitive to the current ethnic and social diversity of Hispanic teens need to be developed and implemented.

The authors stress that participation in risk behaviors does not preclude positive behavior. These positive connections offer untapped opportunities to help teens lead healthier lives.

For more information:

Teen Risk-Taking: A Statistical Portrait
Urban Institute
2100 M Street, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20037
Phone: 202/261-5709
Fax: 202/728-0232
Web site: http://www.urban.org
E-mail: paffairs@ui.urban.org

A note from TheBody.com: Since this article was written, the HIV pandemic has changed, as has our understanding of HIV/AIDS and its treatment. As a result, parts of this article may be outdated. Please keep this in mind, and be sure to visit other parts of our site for more recent information!



  
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This article was provided by Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States. It is a part of the publication SHOP Talk: School Health Opportunities and Progress Bulletin.
 
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