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Survey Assesses Teens' Risky Behavior

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Survey Assesses Teens' Risky Behavior

Children's Health

Survey Assesses Teens' Risky Behavior

Survey Assesses Teens' Risky Behavior

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

A new survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reveals how high school students are handling choices.

And going along with the crowd appears to be a large piece of their decision making in everything from whether or not to use sunscreen to when to have sex, experts say.

Every two years researchers are able to get close to 14,000 9th to 12th graders — from all over the country — to weigh in all of their most personal decisions and behaviors. Their responses are kept anonymous.

According to the survey, only 10 percent of teens say they use sunscreen regularly.

Alexa Zeliger, who is about to turn 13, says lots of girls just want to be tan, even if it means getting a little sunburned.

"You always want to make the right decision, but then also you have a rebellious side, or the side — you know — it's a social thing," she says.

Zeliger's teacher, Jason Rosenbaum, says it's a struggle for teenagers to think through all the possible consequences of their actions.

In the case of sunscreen, the risk of skin cancer may seem too remote to be real.

"The balance between immediate gratification and safety are definitely a struggle," he says.

Glenn Flores is a pediatrician and professor at the University of Texas Southwestern. He's reviewed the survey.

"Teens constantly face temptations in every part of their life," he says.

And in some spheres, teens are making good choices. Take for example tobacco use. It continues to decline among teenagers though just slightly. About 1 in 4 students report using some kind of tobacco.

In other ways, the CDC survey shows that many teens are still taking risks. Take, sex, for example.

The survey found 1 in 3 high school students are sexually active. And 61 percent of them report that either they or their partner use a condom.

This is a slight decrease from the rate of condom use reported two years ago.

Flores says for parents who are concerned by these statistics, evidence suggests that it makes good sense to talk early and often to kids about sex.

"There are studies that document that when a teen reports that they can talk to their parent about sexual issues and have good communication, that they're less likely to be sexually active — and more likely to use condoms if they are sexually active," he says.

Flores says the reproductive-health information that teens or pre-teens get in school seems to be important too.

Advocates for more comprehensive sex education say teens today just aren't getting enough facts.

"Right now, the best estimate we have is that one-third of school districts in the country have an abstinence-only approach. And another one-third have a mixed bag — where there's some reference to condoms or birth control, but not a very comprehensive approach," says James Wagoner, president of Advocate for Youth.

So it's the remaining third that's getting that comprehensive approach where abstinence and birth control hold equal sway. Wagoner says without accurate information on both, the risks that young people are taking may increase.

CDC officials say they are not sure why sexual activity rates are going up a little bit and condom use is going down a little bit after major gains in both categories in the 1990s.

They do say, if trends continue, they will get concerned.