For all the hand-wringing about modern-day evils that face today's teenagers — synthetic drugs, cyber-bullying, sexting and guns — here’s something that might surprise you:
South Florida adolescents, compared to the teens of 20 years ago, are way more responsible. Like, totally.
Drinking is less prevalent. Fewer kids come to school with weapons. And cigarettes these days are about as popular with kids as Vanilla Ice — though there are some trends that will still make parents squirm.
The findings come from a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) survey that is administered in schools throughout the country every two years. Thousands of Miami-Dade and Broward students were randomly selected to participate, and they voluntarily (and anonymously) gave answers on a dizzying array of topics.
Those surveys — which have just been released by local school districts — include subject matter that teens might be skittish about discussing with mom and dad. But experts say they are more likely to be honest when their answers won’t blow back on them.
For instance, about half of high school seniors in Miami-Dade say they have smoked pot — 6 percent more than a decade ago. One in five has used ecstasy. And roughly one-third of Miami-Dade and Broward teens didn’t use a condom the last time they had sex.
But overall, 22 years of data show that teenagers, and even kids in middle school, are for the most part making better decisions these days.
“I think they’re improving,” said Caroline Payne-Purvis, who uses the data on sex, alcohol and obesity in research projects, and is the state coordinator of a University of Florida program for at-risk teens. “But we still have a long ways to go in certain areas, for sure.”
Other scholars agree, even if teens’ answers about suicide, poor diets and marathon video game usage are areas of concern. Comparisons between counties are not always precise due to differences in both the questions asked and the way the results are reported. Some of the findings from the 2013 surveys include:
• Less than 3 in 10 Miami-Dade high school students have even tried cigarettes. That’s less than half the frequency of 20 years ago, when more than 6 in 10 students had smoked at least once.
• Being made fun of on Twitter or Facebook might hurt a teen’s feelings, but they are still more likely to be bullied at school than online — in Broward, for example, 13 percent of high schoolers were bullied on campus, versus 9 percent online.
• Almost 8 percent of Broward high school students had eaten NO —zero, zip, nada
— vegetables in the prior week.
• About a quarter of teens in both counties reported a prolonged “sad or hopeless” feeling within the past year. Between 11 and 12 percent thought about suicide seriously enough that they “made a plan” for how to kill themselves.
The suicidal thoughts caused alarm among Broward School Board members when the survey results were discussed recently.
“That, to me, is incredibly sad,” board member Nora Rupert said. “Not only are they thinking about suicide, they’re making a plan, they’re that unhappy.”
Several board members urged parents to take issues such as drug use and unprotected sex seriously, and not assume their child knows better.
Board member Rosalind Osgood said many parents don’t have a clue about what their children are into.
“We just think that because I take my child to church on Sunday that they can’t possibly be involved in these risky behaviors,” she said. “And it’s not true.”
The Youth Risk Behavior Surveys, created by the CDC in 1990, track issues that can play a major role in social problems among teens. Laura Kann, chief of the CDC's School-Based Surveillance Branch, said more than 2.6 million teens have taken the survey since it was first administered in 1991.
Over the years, the questions have changed to reflect new concerns such as texting and driving, something half of Miami-Dade high school seniors admit to doing.
The answers that teens provide on the surveys are then pored over by researchers, who say the information is crucial to understanding important trends.
“There really isn’t anything else like this,” said Willy Prado, director of the University of Miami’s division of prevention science and community health.
Prado said the survey asks teens about all factors that play into the leading causes of death among young people. He said the results are also broken down both nationally and locally, and by race and age groups — inspiring the latest measures to educate and protect teens.
Prado, who specializes in drugs and alcohol, obesity and HIV/AIDS issues, said years of surveys show that anti-tobacco programs are working, as are anti-drinking campaigns.
On the other hand, marijuana trends and dietary issues are trending backward. And those bicycle helmet programs aren’t doing too well, either, with just 9 percent of Miami-Dade high school teens wearing head protection on rides.
Prado said he had not seen the 2013 survey results, but said previous surveys showed that black teenagers are more likely to have sex before the age of 13. Prado said that is an indicator of a higher risk of contracting HIV/AIDS later in life.
“For those of us very much interested in preventing health behaviors among adolescents, it really helps us decide whom we should be targeting,” Prado said.
The information is as useful to schools officials as it is to researchers. Gisela Feild, Miami-Dade’s administrative director of assessment, research and data analysis, said the district distributes the survey results to all its schools.
The superintendent and his cabinet also hold a meeting to talk about how to address trends heading in the wrong direction, though she said that hasn’t happened yet this year because the results are so fresh.
“The good thing about this is it’s random,” Feild said. “The kids know there’s no way to track it back to them.”
And for South Florida’s schools, that means programming and prevention efforts related to guns, diet, drinking and sex can be shaped with reliable information — even if the information might be a little frightening to some adults.
“What we’re trying to do,” said Feild, “is be open about what kinds of issues we may or may not have in our schools.”