Good Behavior

05.28.14

Today’s Clean-Cut Teens: Less Sex, Less Drugs

Less sex, less pregnancy, less smoking. Today’s teens are proactively healthier than ever.

Taking care of teenagers is my specialty. As I approached the end of residency and considered various possible career options, I decided to get additional training in the specific needs of adolescents. Though I now work in a general pediatric practice and see patients from the newborn stage on up, I focus on the older side of the pediatric spectrum because I really enjoy delivering that kind of patient care.

However, when I happen to mention to people that my practice is weighted toward teenage patients, they tend to react with muted horror. I get skeptical looks, as though I’d revealed that I rent out my home for plutonium storage or converted to a sect of snake handlers. The general impression is that I’ve volunteered for some kind of hazardous duty that calls my sanity into question.

While I understand that adolescents can pose unique challenges to parents and teachers, the truth is that I usually find my teenage patients pretty delightful. They can have a conversation. They have interests and ambitions, just like anyone else. And they are far less prone to kick me when I examine their ears than some of my younger patients.

And, it turns out, quite often they are perfectly capable of taking care of themselves. They don’t always take my advice, and I’m sure that some who say they do aren’t being entirely honest with me. But the majority of my teenage patients take their health seriously, and being their doctor is a very rewarding experience.

If patients haven’t started engaging in certain negative habits by age 18, particularly smoking cigarettes, they are highly unlikely to start later in life.

I was thus pleased—but not surprised—to see that the current generation of American adolescents has been making better health-care decisions for themselves than any previous cohort since the Centers for Disease Control started collecting data. According to a massive new report on trends in health statistics recently released by the CDC and handily summarized by Vox, teenagers are less likely to do drugs, have unprotected sex, or (according to the Guttmacher Institute) get pregnant today than adolescents in previous decades.

Put another way, older readers, contemporary teens are less likely to engage in high-risk shenanigans than you and your fellows were when you were their age.

This is, of course, wonderful news for both the short and long term. If patients haven’t started engaging in certain negative habits by age 18, particularly smoking cigarettes, they are highly unlikely to start later in life. Children born to teen parents are at much higher risk of a whole host of problems (PDF), including dropping out of school, ending up in prison, and becoming teen parents themselves, so record low rates of these pregnancies will contribute to lower rates of related issues.

What this says to me is that, despite their reputations as hell-raising hedonists with an immortality complex, teenagers are capable of absorbing information about keeping themselves safe and healthy. It speaks to the importance of comprehensive sex education programs, which provide teenagers with the facts they need to take care of themselves.

Which brings me to the bone that remains to be picked with Vox, helpful as their tidy summary of the CDC data was. In presenting those data, they summed it up with the headline “Today’s teenagers are the best-behaved generation on record.” However, the report contains no information about how frequently today’s adolescents call their grandmothers or turn in their homework on time. They haven’t collectively sat through a poetry reading and clapped politely at the end—they’ve demonstrated healthier choices than their parents’ and grandparents’ generations. Presumably health information about those latter age groups wouldn’t be framed in such a condescending manner, and describing these encouraging health-care trends in terms of good behavior contributes to the notion that teenagers are less deserving of respect than older patients.

Every population of patients has challenges unique to it, and teenagers are no exception. I need to be more educated about eating disorders and violence prevention than a geriatrician, for example. But adolescents can and do know how to make appropriate health choices for themselves, as these new data clearly demonstrate. As someone who specializes in their care, these numbers don’t surprise me at all.