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High-Risk Behaviors Among Youth – Part 1


What Are Risk Behaviors?

High-risk behaviors are those that can have adverse effects on the overall development and well-being of youth, or that might prevent them from future successes and development.

This includes behaviors that cause immediate physical injury (e.g., fighting), as well as behaviors with cumulative negative effects (e.g., substance use). Risk behaviors also can affect youth by disrupting their normal development or prevent them from participating in ‘typical’ experiences for their age group. For example, teen pregnancy can prevent youth from experiencing typical adolescent events such as graduating from school or from developing close friendships with peers.

Because high-risk behaviors can significantly impact the lives of youth and those around them, it is essential that parents, educators and other concerned adults become aware of the prevalence of these behaviors, the factors that increase their likelihood, and what can be done to abate or prevent those risks.

Types And Prevalence Of High-Risk Behaviors

Several high-risk behaviors have been of particular interest to professionals because of their prevalence in youth today.

Many of these behaviors cause a large number of deaths and injury among teens, or have negative impacts on society.

Behaviors Related To Obesity And Unhealthy Dieting

In recent years, the rate of obesity in the U.S. has reached epidemic levels. For this reason, many professionals have started to consider behaviors leading to being overweight and obesity as risky. Nationally, only 66 percent of youth report engaging in vigorous physical activity at least three times during the past week. While an increasing number of youth are overweight or obese, a large number of youth also are engaging in unhealthy dietary behaviors to lose weight.

Teens use unhealthy methods including vomiting, laxatives, unsupervised/non-prescribed diet pills and fasting.

Risky Sexual Behaviors

Engagement in sexual behavior is considered to be another group of high-risk behaviors for youth because of the potential physical (e.g., STDs or sexually transmitted diseases) and socioemotional risks they present. Youth may or may not be ready for the social and emotional implications of sexual activity, and many sexually active youth do not use safe sexual practices. Teens engage in sexual intercourse at a young age – 47 percent of youth nationwide.

Among those who report engaging in sex, only 63 percent report having used a condom during their last intercourse and 17 percent report using alternative methods of birth control. Unprotected sex exacerbates risks because of the potential for developing STDs and the potential for unwanted pregnancy.

Approximately half of the 19 million new STD cases diagnosed per year are of youth ages 15-19; and 13 percent of new HIV/AIDS diagnoses are of youth ages 13-24. Teen pregnancy is both a possible effect of risky behaviors as well as a risk factor in itself. Teen pregnancy has been linked to higher rates of school dropout, as well as other socio-emotional risks. Rates of U.S. teen pregnancy have declined over the last few years. To date, the rate of teen pregnancy is about 7.5 percent for girls between the ages of 15 and 19, which is 36 percent lower than in 1990.

Nonetheless, this rate remains the highest in all the other developed countries (e.g., compared to Canada, Germany, Japan) (Gutmacher Institute, 2006).

Self-injurious Behaviors, Violence And Suicide

Among teens, many of the most self-injurious behaviors are related to driving.

Obtaining a driver’s license is considered as one of the most exciting milestones of the teen years but unfortunately, car accidents make up the leading cause of death among teens. Many injuries are exacerbated (and deaths are caused) by the failure to wear seat belts, being distracted by others in the car, talking on their cell phones, and texting. Approximately 30 percent of youth nationwide report that they rarely or never wear seat belts. The combination of alcohol use and driving also contributes to deaths among teens from car crashes. About 10 percent of teens report driving after drinking, and 36 percent admit riding in a car where the driver had been drinking. Driving-related risk behaviors continue to be a serious problem during the teen years.

Fighting and aggression include another group of self-injurious behaviors. It is second to vehicular accidents as the leading cause of death among those 15-34 years of age.

Nationally, 36 percent of teens report having been involved in physical fighting over the last year with males (43 percent) outnumbering females (28 percent) dramatically. Similarly, both males and females reported carrying a weapon or a gun (19 percent nationally), however males (29 percent) outnumbered females (7 percent) significantly. Finally, suicide is one of the highest risk behaviors among youth today. Close to 17 percent (almost one out of every five) of youth report having considered suicide within the past year and 13 percent actually planned it (national and state numbers are similar). Among teens, 8.4 percent attempt suicide every year. Suicide now is the third leading cause of death among those ages 15-24, with 86 percent of those deaths from males, and 14 percent from females.

Substance Use

Substance use is another group of behaviors that contribute to immediate as well as long-term damage. Drinking and drug use have been linked to motor vehicle accidents, fighting/violence, problematic relationships and social interactions, and various diseases. Drinking and cigarette smoking are among the most common in this group of behaviors.

Over 43 percent of youth nationwide report that they drink alcohol, and 26 percent of youth nationwide admit to heavy drinking (five or more drinks in a row).

Approximately 23 percent of teens admit to being cigarette smokers with 9.4 percent being frequent cigarette users (smoked on 20 of last 30 days). Like self-injurious behaviors, the prevalence of alcohol and cigarette use has decreased over the last few years, but nonetheless continues to be serious risks to adolescent health. Illicit drug use is both a health and public concern because of the obvious negative physical effects it has on users. Effects of illicit drug use include, but are not limited to, brain damage and damage to major physical organs. It also has been linked to a host of other health compromising behaviors such as risky driving, engagement in high-risk sexual behaviors, and violence. Recent estimates suggest that 22 percent of teens use marijuana and that 10 percent of teens used marijuana before the age of 13. Approximately 3 percent use cocaine.

In recent years, methamphetamine use has become a serious concern in the United States. The low-cost of the drug and the ease at which many youth are able to access this substance have contributed significantly to its rapid spread.

The serious, immediate and long-term effects of methamphetamine have made it a top concern for many professionals and policy-makers. Today, about 3 percent of eighth graders, and over 4 percent of 10th and 12th graders report having tried or used methamphetamine nationally.

Par 2 – Relationship Between Adolescence and High-Risk Behaviors

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