Data from the latest National Youth Risk Behavior Survey show that although many harmful behaviors are declining among high school students across the United States, work still needs to be done to eliminate risks that linger and quell those starting to crop up.

“We are encouraged to see that high school students are making some better choices; unfortunately, [we] are also facing some big challenges,” Dr. Stephanie Zaza , director of the division of adolescent and school health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said June 9 during a teleconference.

More than 15,000 high school students – located in 37 states and 19 large, urban school districts – participated in the survey, which analyzed risk behaviors in key health and wellness categories. Smoking has decreased significantly since 1991, the inaugural year of the survey, dropping from 70% to 32% for students who had ever tried a cigarette. Hispanic males (37%) and students in 11th grade (38%) had the highest rates of cigarette use. However, e-cigarette use continues to be a growing issue, with 45% of high school students reporting having used an electronic vapor product at some point. This category includes not just e-cigarettes, but vape pipes and e-hookahs.

Opiate use also continues to be a challenging issue for public health, with 17% of high school students reporting that they have used a prescription drug despite not having a doctor’s prescription to use it. Those drugs include OxyContin (oxycodone), Percocet (acetaminophen/oxycodone), Vicodin (acetaminophen/hydrocodone), and codeine. Other problematic drugs among these students are the stimulants Adderall (dextroamphetamine plus amphetamine) and Ritalin (methylphenidate hydrochloride), and Xanax (alprazolam), a benzodiazepine. Males were more likely to use drugs without a prescription than female students were: 18% vs.16%, respectively.

Results related to interpersonal violence – such as schoolyard fighting and physical bullying – were “mixed,” according to Dr. Zaza. Students who had engaged in a physical fight in the last year registered 23%, a sharp decrease from the 42% logged in 1991; however, bullying rates continue to remain high, with 20% of students reporting being involved with physical bullying and 16% reporting involvement with cyberbullying in some capacity.

On a more positive note, students seem to be eating better, with dietary statistics looking increasingly optimistic. In particular, consumption of sugar-heavy drinks and sodas dropped significantly from 27% in 2013 to 20% last year. But Dr. Zaza warned that dietary improvements are offset by continued sedentary lifestyles. Although TV watching has declined, it has been effectively replaced by increased time in front of computers and video games; use of a computer for tasks unrelated to school for more than 3 hours daily rose, from 22% in 2003 to 42% in 2015.

The percentage of sexually active high school students – those who have had sexual intercourse in the 3 months before participating in the survey – has dropped to 30%, from 38% in 1991. However, despite this, condom use among sexually active high school students also declined, going from 63% in 2003 to 57% in 2015.

Also alarming is that 21% of sexually active students reported consuming drugs or alcohol before their last sexual encounter. Testing for HIV among sexually active high school student also has decreased, from 13% in 2013 to 10% in 2015.

A total of 42% of students reported texting or emailing while driving in the 30 days prior to taking the survey, which is steady with the data from 2013.

“There’s no single solution to improving health risk behaviors among high school students, and we can all collaborate to help address these health risks using interventions that are based on the best science available,” Dr. Zaza said. “We hope that public health professionals, educators, youth service providers, policy makers, and parents can use these data to guide their planning decisions, and help schools and communities reduce youth health risk behaviors.”

The CDC conducted and released the survey.


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