Today's Teens are Best Behaved in Years, CDC Finds

Less Sex, Drugs, Drinking and Smoking Among 9th to 12th Graders

Group of 1960s teenagers kissing, hugging and dancing
Teenage Romance in the 1960s. Vecchio / Getty Images

“Get off my Lawn! … I tell you, Kids these days!” Yeah, what about them? According to federal government data, today’s teenagers are the best behaved American kids in generations.

In fact, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) 2015 release of its massive Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS), suggests that kids these days are doing those risky behaviors less often that at any time since 1991.

Published since 1991, the YRBSS reports on behaviors that most contribute to “death, disability, and social problems” among American youth, like drinking, smoking, having sex, and using drugs.

The YRBSS survey is conducted every two years during the spring school semester and provides data representative of 9th through 12th grade students in public and private schools throughout the United States.

While the CDC rarely makes its own social interpretations of the YRBSS report, its more than 180 pages of numbers often speak for themselves.

Less Sex, More Protection

Not only have American 9th through 12th graders become less likely to have sex, they are more likely to use some method of protection when they do.

According to the first YRBSS report in 1991, more than half -- 54.1% of teens -- said they had already had sexual intercourse. That number has declined every year since, dropping to 41.2% in 2015.

Similarly, the number of teens saying they were currently sexually active, meaning they had had sex during the last three months, dropped from 37.9% in 1991 to 30.1% 2015. In addition, the percentage of teens that reported having sex before age 13 fell from 10.2% in 1991 to only 3.9% in 2015. 

At the same time, the percentage of sexually active teens who said they did not use any form of birth control has fallen from 16.5% in 1991 to 13.8% in 2015.

While the percentage of sexually active teens using condoms has increased from 46.2% in 1991 to 56.9% in 2015, condom use has declined every year since 2003, when it reached an all-time high of 63.0%. 

The recent decrease in condom use may be offset by the fact that sexually active teens are now more likely than ever to use more effective, longer-acting forms of birth control, such as IUDs and hormonal contraceptive implants.

All of the above has certainly contributed to the dramatic decline in teen birth rates since the 1980s.

Illicit Drug Use

Pick an illicit drug and teens are probably using it less, according to the latest YRBSS report.

Percentages of teens using heroin, methamphetamines, and hallucinogenic drugs, like LDS and PCP have hit all-time lows. Use of other drugs, including cocaine and yes, even marijuana are declining steadily.

After reaching a high of 47.2% in 1999, the percentage teens that had ever used marijuana had fallen to 38.6% in 2015. The percentage of teens currently using marijuana (at least once a month) fell from a high of 26.7% in 1999 to 21.7% in 2015. In addition, the parentage of teens who reported trying marijuana before age 13 dropped from 11.3% in 1999 to 7.5% in 2015.

Cocaine use among teens has fallen every year since hitting a high of 9.5% in 1999, dropping to 5.2% in 2015.

Since the CDC started tracking it in 2001, the percentage of teens reporting using one or more types of hallucinogenic drugs at least once in their lives has fallen from 13.3% to 6.4% in 2015.

The percentage of teens using prescription drugs, like Oxycontin, Percocet or Vicodin, without a doctor's prescription has dropped from 20.2% in 2009 to 16.6% in 2015.

Alcohol Consumption

In 1991, more than half – 50.8% -- of American teens reported drinking alcoholic beverages at least once a month and 32.7% said they had started drinking before age 13. By 2015 the percentage of regular teen drinkers had fallen to 32.8% and the percentage of those who started before age 13 had dropped to 17.2%.

Binge drinking – 5 or more alcoholic drinks in a row – among teens has been cut nearly in half, down from 31.3% in 1991 to 17.7% in 2015.

Smoking

American teens aren’t just kicking “the habit,” they are pounding the heck out of it.

According to the 2015 YRBSS report, the percentage of teens who said they were “frequent” cigarette smokers fell from a high of 16.8% in 1999 to only 3.4% in 2015. Similarly, only 2.3% of teens reported smoking cigarettes daily in 2015, compared to 12.8% in 1999.

Perhaps even more importantly, the percentage of teens who had ever tried smoking cigarettes fell by more than half, from a high of 71.3% in 1995 to an all-time low of 32.3% in 2015.

What about vaping? While the potenetial health hazards of vaping products, like e-cigarettes, are still not fully known, they do seem to be popular with teens. In 2015 – the first year the YRBSS asked teens about vaping – 49% of students said they had used electronic vapor products.

Suicide

On the downside, the percentage of teens attempting suicide has remained largely unchanged at around 8.5% since 1993. However, the percentage of teens who had seriously considered taking their own lives fell from 29.0% in 1991 to 17.7% in 2015.  

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Longley, Robert. "Today's Teens are Best Behaved in Years, CDC Finds." ThoughtCo, Jul. 12, 2016, thoughtco.com/todays-teens-best-behaved-in-years-4060271. Longley, Robert. (2016, July 12). Today's Teens are Best Behaved in Years, CDC Finds. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/todays-teens-best-behaved-in-years-4060271 Longley, Robert. "Today's Teens are Best Behaved in Years, CDC Finds." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/todays-teens-best-behaved-in-years-4060271 (accessed January 23, 2018).