It is human nature for adults to lament the habits of younger generations, to pull out the “When I was their age” trope and insist that today’s teens are not adhering to the high standards set by their elders.
But a recent survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates that, in general, teens are more healthy and more responsible than their predecessors. As Bill Albert, spokesman for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, told the Associated Press, “I think you can call this the cautious generation.”
For example, the survey that was conducted in 2015 found that 41 percent of today’s high school students have had sex. That represents a drop from 47 percent in 2013 and from 54 percent in 1991, the first year of the biannual survey. The percentage of high school students who are currently sexually active fell from 34 percent to 30 percent in the past two years.
The survey is not to be taken as gospel. Participation is voluntary, responses remain anonymous, and about 15,000 students participated. In addition, Washington, Oregon and Minnesota do not take part, meaning that the results are not directly applicable to this corner of the nation. But garnering a glimpse of teen behavior and predilections is important for assessing the state of the country and developing future policies.
The results, meanwhile, serve as a reminder that today’s youngsters do not necessarily embrace the coarsening that is evident in popular culture. As the Chicago Tribune wrote editorially, “It turns out the kids can distinguish the models presented in music and movies from what they need to do to succeed in real life.”
Among those habits for success is a sharp decline in cigarette use. About 28 percent of high school students in 1991 reported that they smoked cigarettes, a number that declined to 11 percent in 2015. Much of that has been replaced by the use of e-cigarettes or other vaping products, with 24 percent of respondents reporting use in the previous 30 days. Continued educational efforts are necessary, but a move away from cigarettes bodes well for the future health of the nation. As CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta said: “Tobacco (is) arguably the most addictive substance on the planet, which has no redeeming qualities whatsoever.”
There also has been a decline in alcohol use. In 1991, more than half of respondents reported drinking at least once a month; today, about one in three drink that often. Meanwhile, the use of marijuana also has declined, but an increased percentage of students report using prescription drugs for recreational purposes. Finally, the survey showed that today’s students are about half as likely to get into fights as students in 1991.
Overall, the results of the survey are encouraging, reflecting a generation that is more likely to eschew risky behaviors than generations of the past. Today’s students have more information available than their elders had at a similar age, and concerted educational efforts are having an impact. The goal is to assist teens in making lifestyle decisions that will have lifelong impacts, reducing the health care costs and social costs that such behaviors can extract down the road. Like every generation before them, teens have difficulty grasping such long-term burdens, but education is essential to forming positive habits.
Many grown-ups invariably find fault with the generations that follow in their footsteps. But the truth of modern society is that the kids are all right.