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Survey: Nation’s Teens At Risk, Often Make Bad Choices

August 9, 1988

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Teen-agers understand how AIDS is caught but don’t know how to avoid getting other sexually transmitted diseases. Many drink to excess, use drugs, eat badly, neglect to wear seat belts and ride with drinking drivers. A substantial number have seriously considered suicide.

Those are the results of a survey, sponsored by health education groups and the Health and Human Services Department, which showed that teens often make wrong decisions about their health and safety even when they know better.

Dr. Robert E. Windom, assistant health secretary and head of the U.S. Public Health Service, called the results ″somewhat dismaying.″

″The results give us fresh insight concerning what our nation’s teen-agers know and how they act concerning health and sex-related issues - but they also show that too many young people, even when they know better, don’t always make the right health decisions,″ Windom said.

A margin of error for the survey was not immediately available, said spokeswoman Lisa Clough, but about 11,000 eighth- and 10-graders from a nationally representative sample of more than 200 public and private schools were surveyed.

The survey, conducted in the fall of 1987, showed that alcohol and drug use continue to be problems among the nation’s young people.

Twenty-six percent of the eighth-graders and 38 percent of the 10th-graders said they had had five or more drinks on one occasion during the two weeks preceding the survey.

About one in 10 adolescents said they had smoked marijuana during the past month, and one in 15 said they had used cocaine during that period.

Most teens understand that acquired immune deficiency syndrome is transmitted by sexual intercourse and drug needles. They know that condoms are effective in helping avoid AIDS and believe they should be used.

But 47 percent mistakenly believe that there is an increased risk of getting AIDS when donating blood, and about half of the students are unsure or mistakenly believe that washing after sex reduces the chances of being infected.

The survey noted that 2.5 million teen-agers are infected with sexually transmitted disease each year and that many teens cannot identify common early signs of the infections. A majority of those surveyed do not know that taking birth control pills is ineffective in avoiding such diseases. More than a third said they would not know where to go for medical care if they caught a sexually transmitted disease.

Suicide is a leading cause of death for young people between the ages of 15 and 24, the survey noted. Forty-two percent of the girls and 25 percent of the boys surveyed said they have ″seriously thought″ about committing suicide at some time in their lives. Nearly one in five girls and one in 10 boys responded that they have actually tried to commit suicide.

The survey confirmed what many already suspected - teens don’t eat right even when they know they should. Nearly four out of 10 students said they eat fried foods four or more times a week. The average student ate three snacks a day that were high in fat or sugar, and 73 percent said they knew that eating such food may be related to heart problems or high blood pressure.

Sixty-one percent of the girls and 28 percent of the boys said they had dieted during the past year, and about half of the students who dieted used unsafe methods such as fasting. Others tried diet pills, laxatives or vomiting.

Unintentional injuries are the leading cause of death for young people age 15 to 25, with motor vehicle accidents accounting for more than 70 percent of accidental deaths. The survey showed that a substantial portion of the nation’s teens do not guard against such injuries.

About 56 percent of those surveyed said they did not wear a seat belt the last time they rode in a vehicle. About 44 percent of 10th-graders and 32 percent of eighth-graders said they had ridden during the past month with a driver who had used drugs or alcohol. And when they ride bicycles or motorcycles, 92 percent say they never wear a protective helmet.

Seventeen percent said they had used alcohol or drugs while swimming or boating during the last year. And 64 percent of the boys and 19 percent of girls said they had used a gun during the past year.

The survey results will be used to improve health education efforts and to develop public policies about adolescent health. The survey was initiated by the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance and Association for the Advancement of Health Education; American School Health Association and the Society for Public Health Education. Funding was provided by HHS.

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