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Education Reporter

Teens Less Likely to Drink, Smoke, or Use Drugs
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A recent report shares good news about American teenagers: they are less likely to smoke, binge drink, or use illegal drugs than their parents were at the same age. Between 2003 and 2005, 24% of high school seniors smoked, 28% engaged in binge drinking, and 23.5% used illegal drugs. Between 1975 and 1977, when the parents of today's high school seniors were seniors themselves, 38% smoked, 38% engaged in binge drinking, and 34% used illegal drugs.

These figures come from the Foundation for Child Development's annual Child and Youth Well-Being Index (CWI) report. The CWI Project, based at Duke University, has evaluated the well-being of American children between 1975 and 2006. CWI researchers examine 28 indicators of well-being, in the categories of economic well-being, health, safety, educational attainment, and participation in schooling, economic, and political institutions.

The report credits "parental monitoring, changes in lifestyles and time uses of adolescents, activist community groups, and policies of school, police and other official agencies" for these remarkable drops in risky behaviors among American teens. Today's teens are also less likely than teens in the 1970s to bear children or to commit violent crimes. The high school graduation rate has risen slightly since the 1970s, and the rate of college attendance has risen steeply.

There's more good news about modern teens. Not only are they making better choices, they are also better off than their parents on several other key indicators. They are at a much lower risk of death from accidents, violence, or disease, and are less likely to become the victims of any type of violent crime. The suicide rate has not changed since 1975; then as now, about 4.5 per 100,000 youths committed suicide.

On the other hand, teenagers now are less likely to attend church or other religious services than their parents were at the same age. 40% attended then, and 33% attend now. Many people today deprecate organized religion, saying they are "spiritual but not 'religious,'" and the FCD's data shows that 12th-graders, too, participate in that trend. Even though they are less likely to attend religious services than their parents were, they are 9% more likely to say that religion is important. 31% say that religion is important, compared to 28.5% of seniors between 1975 and 1977.

Academically, these teens are on a par with their parents. Current test scores in reading are the same as they were in the '70s for both 13-year-olds and 17-year-olds, and scores in math have just slightly improved. According to CWI Project coordinator Kenneth Land, it is actually good news that these scores aren't much worse. "We haven't lost ground in these test scores, despite the fact that teachers and school systems have to deal with quite a different student population than a generation ago, as well as changes in lifestyles," he told USA Today (7-22-08).

Land pointed out that in the 1970s, far fewer students started school with limited English skills. Teenagers used to read more outside of school, as well. "It's a matter of competing opportunities for spending time," said Land. Video games and the internet now compete with books for children's attention during their after-school hours.

The report evaluates the well-being of American children of all ages, not just of teenagers. According to the CWI's indicators, child and youth well-being has risen about 2% since 1975. 21 out of the 28 indicators have improved: notably, median family income, secure parental employment and educational attainment are all up, and infant, child, and adolescent mortality are down. The indicators that show children faring worse since 1975 include single parenthood, low birth weight, obesity, and church attendance.

The CWI indicators for children of all ages show the well-being of American children holding nearly steady since 2002. The index rose more steeply from 1994 to 2002, with a sharp up-tick in 2002. FCD now believes that the sharp rise in several indicators in 2002 resulted from the nation's reaction to the 9/11/01 terrorist attacks. "As America united behind a common purpose, communities and families came together as well," says the report. Indicators associated with "social relationships" and "emotional and spiritual well-being" rose at that time, but declined in subsequent years.

Evaluating and attaching a number to the well-being of 73 million children is no easy task. Not everyone will agree with FCD's methods. For example, preschool advocates will naturally agree with the Well-Being Index that the more children are in preschool, the better; but others, who consider preschool a "mixed blessing" at best, will challenge that assumption. The index leaves out several important factors in child and youth well-being: how much time children spend with their parents, for example, and the rates of premarital sex. Regardless of these details, the CWI brings together in one place a vast amount of information on the state of American childhood, and is a useful and interesting project. (http://www.fcd-us.org/usr_doc/2008AnnualRelease.pdf)

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