Editorial - The health of our youth and lessons from national surveys (pp. 133-134)
Authors: Joav Merrick and Shoshanah Aspler
Abstract: There are many potentially risky behaviors that youth can engage in. Some of them can have implications for both their well-being, their life prospects and for others in their environment. Smoking, drinking, sex, drugs, driving, violence are just some of the important issues that can have some important ramifications for the remainder of their lives. These risky behaviors have changed and will change over time and it is therefore important that society try to monitor trends and risks in order to prevent damage or at least minimize long term effects on the youth.
It is therefore important that the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS) was created, which monitors six categories of priority health-risk behaviors among youth and young adults: 1) behaviors that contribute to unintentional injuries and violence, 2) tobacco use, 3) alcohol and other drug use, 4) sexual behaviors that contribute to unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), including human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection, 5) unhealthy dietary behaviors and 6) physical inactivity (1). YRBSS also monitors the prevalence of obesity and asthma. YRBSS includes a national school-based Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) conducted by CDC and state and large urban school district school-based YRBSs conducted by state and local education and health agencies (1).
The last report for 2010-2011 (1) is a summary from 43 state surveys and 21 large urban school district surveys conducted among American students in grades 9–12. This national 2011 survey indicated that many high school students are engaged in health-risk behaviors associated with the leading causes of death among persons aged 10–24 years in the United States. The results showed that during the 30 days before the survey, 32.8% of high school students nationwide had texted or e-mailed while driving, 38.7% had drunk alcohol and 23.1% had used marijuana. 12 months before the survey, 32.8% of students had been in a physical fight, 20.1% had ever been bullied on school property and 7.8% had attempted suicide. Many high school students nationwide were engaged in sexual risk behaviors associated with unintended pregnancies and STDs, including HIV infection. Nearly half (47.4%) of students had ever had sexual intercourse, 33.7% had had sexual intercourse during the three months before the survey and 15.3% had had sexual intercourse with four or more people during their life. Among currently sexually active students, 60.2% had used a condom during their last sexual intercourse.
Youth are also engaged in behaviors associated with the leading causes of death among adults in the United States. During the 30 days before the survey, 18.1% of high school students had smoked cigarettes and 7.7% had used smokeless tobacco. During the seven days before the survey, 4.8% of high school students had not eaten fruit or drunk 100% fruit juices and 5.7% had not eaten vegetables. Nearly one-third (31.1%) had played video or computer games for three or more hours on an average school day.
Since 1991, when these surveys started, the results have helped public health professionals to try various intervention and preventive measures. These efforts have decreased the prevalence of many health-risk behaviors, like never or rarely wearing a seatbelt, riding with a driver who had been drinking alcohol, current frequent cigarette use and being currently sexually active. On the other hand the percentage of high school students who are obese increased during 1999–2011 and the percentage who drank three or more glasses per day of milk and who routinely used sunscreen decreased during this same period. In addition, among students who currently smoke cigarettes, the percentage who tried to quit smoking cigarettes decreased during 2001–2011. Emerging behavior patterns can be detected by examining temporal changes during 2009–2011. For example, encouraging changes during 2009–2011 include a decrease in the percentage of students who currently used alcohol and binge drank and an increase in the percentage of students who ate vegetables three or more times per day. Concerning changes during 2009–2011 include a decrease in the percentage of students who were taught in school about AIDS or HIV infection and an increase in the percentage of students who attempted suicide and currently used marijuana.
The data from such surveys are used for public health action and the trends can guide professionals in their field work to promote more effective prevention and school health programs to reduce risk and improve health outcomes among our young people. We still have work to do.
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