Teenagers were once terrible punks defiantly fucking each other, cigarettes burning between their teeth as they chucked crunched beer cans in the face of straight-laced conformity. Today, however, science shows the demographic has largely become boring as hell: The results of one massive recent study found significant decreases in cigarette smoking, substance use, and sex among teenagers in the US.
Stephanie Zaza is the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) division of Adolescent and School Health, the department that is responsible for the Youth Risk Behaviors Surveillance—a wide-ranging, national, bi-annual survey of high school students that provides the entire CDC with "good information about what our young people are doing" in order to develop tangible solutions for youth risk.
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The report, released yesterday, contains results from 2015 based on three levels of surveillance: the national survey, 37 state surveys, and 19 city surveys. The Youth Risk Behaviors Surveillance is as broad as its name implies, covering everything from bullying to sexual violence to drug and alcohol consumption among teenagers.
Substance use is way down. The number of students who had ever smoked a cigarette dropped from 41 percent in 2013 to 32 percent in 2015, and the number of students who had ever drank alcohol dropped more than 10 percent in the last ten years. (Between 2007 and 2015, that number fell from 75 percent to 63 percent.) They're binge-drinking less, too: The number of students who had more than five drinks in a row in the month preceding the survey was only 17.7 percent. In the 90s that number was more than 30 percent. The numbers for drugs like cocaine and marijuana also fell significantly in the last decade.
Dr. Tony Ferretti is a relationship and personality expert. In an interview with Broadly, Ferretti explains that "constructive and healthy use of technology can provide an outlet or coping mechanism to deal with today's stress and busyness." Which means that teens might not be seeking drugs and alcohol to deal with their woes. "Also, being more connected to friends and family through technology can provide a sense of support, comfort, and security [that replaces] turning to drugs or alcohol to numb the pain," Ferretti says. Makes sense: Forty-one percent of teens reported more than three hours of non-work-related computer use per day. That number has increased drastically in the past decade.
Sex today is not as taboo—it has less appeal as a means of defying or separating from one's parents.
When it comes to sex, teens are having less (41 percent had ever done it) today than they were two years ago (46 percent), or in the 90s (54 percent). Statistically speaking, it's a big drop, and Zaza believes it's a meaningful one. She's pleased that these numbers are going down, but she'd still like kids to be having less sex—particularly when they're not getting tested for HIV (only 10 percent of students do) or wearing a condom (only 8.8 percent wore them during their last lay), or are using drugs and alcohol (20 percent).
Why are drugs, sex, and alcohol associated with youth? Ferretti explains that teenagers have used "adult-like behaviors" to define their independence, to carve out their own identities apart from their parents. "Engaging in behaviors that are defiant and rebellious in nature creates greater separation from authority figures and the feeling of being controlled," Ferretti says. Part of that is breaking rules. But, as Ferretti points out, "Sex today is talked about more openly and not as taboo—it has less appeal as a means of defying or separating from one's parents."
Or, it could just be technology, according to sex therapist Ian Kerner. The young men in high school that he works with "are masturbating way more to online porn than previous generations," which could be lowering the "sense of urgency" that drove their fathers and grandfathers to seek sex. Teen boys can "enjoy high-octane visual porn" from the comfort of their own homes.
Further analysis will come in the next two years, before the survey is performed again, Zaza explained. "The strength of these surveys is to then use this data to analyze relationships between these receptors," she said. "This survey tells us 'what.' It's basically a surveillance system that tells us what is happening—it cannot tell us why."