By E.J. Mundell and Steve Reinberg
THURSDAY, June 12, 2014 (HealthDay News) — There’s good news for parents from a new government report on teen behaviors: The rates of smoking, sex and physical fights among high school students are dropping.
The 2013 survey found that the smoking rate for this age group has now declined to just 15.7 percent — reaching the U.S. government’s “Healthy People 2020” goal of 16 percent or lower seven years early.
According to the report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, teens are also waiting longer now to have sex than in years past. The number who said they had engaged in sexual intercourse during the past three years fell from 38 percent in 1991 to 34 percent by 2013, the CDC found.
Teens also appear to be less violent now than in the past. The survey of more than 13,000 U.S. high school students from 42 states found that 25 percent of teens had been in a physical fight at least once over the past year, compared to a rate of 42 percent when kids were surveyed in 1991.
“We are encouraged to see that high school students are making better choices in some areas like smoking and fighting,” CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden said during a Thursday news briefing.
“I am also encouraged to see the reduction in the proportion of high school kids who are currently sexually active,” he added. “We still think it’s too high, but the trend is going in the right direction.”
Teens might even be watching their diets a bit more, the CDC found. The agency found a “significant decrease” in the number of high school students who drank soda one or more times per day. While 34 percent of teens surveyed in 2007 said they consumed the calorie-packed drinks daily, that number had fallen to 27 percent by 2013.
But the news wasn’t all good. According to the survey, while rates of smoking tobacco cigarettes were down, there was no change at all in the rate of chew, snuff and other smokeless tobacco since 1999, and the rate of cigar use among male high school seniors is now at 23 percent. And the CDC notes that other surveys have charted a rise in the number of teens using hookahs or e-cigarettes.
“Although this report doesn’t have data on e-cigarette use among high school students, we know that e-cigarette use is skyrocketing, and we are concerned about that,” Frieden said. “We are particularly concerned with e-cigarettes ‘re-glamorizing’ smoking traditional cigarettes.”
And when it comes to sexual activity, the survey found that the rate of unprotected, condom-free sex has actually risen over time. In 2003, 63 percent of sexually active teens said they used condoms, compared to 59 percent in 2013.
The rise of computer and wireless technologies may also be taking a toll on the health and safety of young people. The CDC survey found a dramatic rise in the number of teen drivers who text or email while on the road: In 2013, 41 percent of teen drivers said they had done so at least once over the past month.
“Texting while driving continues to be a concern,” Dr. Stephanie Zaza, director of CDC’s division of adolescent and school health, said during the news conference. “Teen drivers have the highest proportion of distraction-related fatal crashes,” she noted.
“Parents can play an active role in keeping their teen drivers safe by close monitoring, frequent discussion, parent-teen driving agreements and acting as a role model of good driving habits,” Zaza said.
And while fewer kids are now watching three or more hours of TV per day than in the past, computer time may have taken its place. According to the CDC survey, the percentage of teens who say they spend three or more hours each day on their computers (for non-schoolwork-related purposes) jumped from 22 percent in 2003 to 41 percent 10 years later.
“We know that excessive screen time — such as TV, computer or video game use — is associated with chronic diseases and factors such as obesity,” Zaza noted.
The exact reasons for the trends noted in the new report aren’t clear, she added. The survey “tells us what kids do, but not why,” Zaza said.
Frieden said more must be done to make sure the nation’s children grow up healthy.
“It’s not too much to ask that every kid born in this country reaches adulthood without an infection that they will have to deal with for the rest of their life, without nicotine addiction and at a healthy weight,” he said.
There’s help for teens looking to quit smoking at smokefree.gov.