Just like the iconic rock song says, it turns out that the kids really are alright.
Even though American teenagers are heavier, eat fewer vegetables, sleep less, and spend a lot more time playing video games than their parents ever did, these future adults also are less likely to suffer from drug and alcohol abuse when they grow up, according to new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
“When you look at the 25-year trend, there are lots of things that should make parents and everyone very happy,” says Natalia Pane, chief operating officer of Child Trends, a nonprofit research organization focused children, youth, and their families. “As a parent I am pleasantly surprised at how much better things are than when I grew up.”
Every two years during the spring semester, the CDC surveys students in 9th through 12th grade enrolled at public and private schools throughout the United States.
The latest survey, from 2017, shows that fewer American high school students report smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol, or taking drugs than their counterparts of 25 years ago. First-time alcohol use has dropped by 26 percent since 1991, while the use of cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine has hit an all-time low, which bodes well for the teenagers’ futures as adults.
“If kids don’t start smoking…if they don’t drink by the age of 13…that predicts the likelihood of addiction and long-term alcohol problems,” Pane says. “So part of what I talk to my kids about is: ‘Just hold off.’ It’s not a ‘Don’t do it.’ It’s a ‘Don’t do it right now.’”
The data shows that America’s high school students are having less sex, and when they do become sexually active, it’s with fewer people. Forty percent of today’s students say they’ve had sex, down from 54 percent two decades ago. And just 3 percent of those teens say they became sexually active before their 13th birthday.
America’s young people are safer on the road, too. Twenty-five years ago, 1-in-4 teens didn’t wear a seat belt. By 2017, that number was down to just 6 percent, and the result is that fewer young people are dying in car accidents.
But there are some disturbing trends. In 2016, adolescents and young adults between the ages of 15 and 24 had a suicide rate of 13 percent per 100,000, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
More than 17 percent of teens surveyed by the CDC say they’ve seriously considered attempting suicide.
“Why that’s happening we don’t know either,” Pane says. “I’m not seeing opioid death data — that there’s been a spike in teens and young adults yet — but because there’s a spike in the suicide, it makes me think that a lot of these kids are watching their parents get addicted [to opioids].”
The high schoolers in the CDC survey were asked about their own opioid use for the first time in 2017. Fourteen percent of the students said they’d taken prescription pain medicine without a doctor’s prescription or differently from how a doctor told them to use it.
Then there’s the issue of screen time. While television time has been cut in half since 1999, the percentage of high schoolers who say they play video games or use computers at least three hours each day has almost doubled since 2003.
And while vaping — inhaling and exhaling the vapor produced by an electronic cigarette or similar device — is the new smoking for many high schoolers, the report found that vaping has already dropped off — from 24 percent in 2015 to 13 percent in 2017.
Although there are a handful of worrisome trends, Pane sees reason for optimism in the overall results.
“It’s going to be OK,” Pane says. “These kids are more balanced, more thoughtful. They’re not mixing alcohol with drugs with having sex, they’re just being more mindful overall.”