More Minn. teens playing it safe (or fibbing about drinking, smoking)

  • Article by: JEREMY OLSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 18, 2014 - 6:13 AM

Either today’s teens are taking fewer illicit risks, or they’re getting better at fibbing about it.

Results of the 2013 Minnesota Student Survey, released this week, suggest that fewer Minnesota adolescents drink, smoke, have sex or skip school than their peers did over the past decade.

The survey paints a picture of Minnesota teens who fill their days with work, sports and homework — at least when they’re not texting — and who confront social influences, but not as much pressure to walk on the wild side.

“I’ve seen a decline in peer pressure to push people toward drugs and alcohol,” said Nguyen Lu, a senior at Highland Park Senior High School in St. Paul. If classmates offer alcohol or cigarettes at a party, he said, “they usually don’t push” if you decline.

The student survey, conducted every three years, is a much-anticipated look at youth behavior and attitudes, which state leaders use to shape education and public health programming and craft youth safety legislation.

Changes in methodology and participating school districts make it hard to compare the results to those from previous years; for example, no students from Minneapolis public schools were among the 162,034 youths who completed the voluntary survey in 2013, so responses are lacking from an urban student body with high rates of diversity and poverty.

But preliminary analysis by researchers at the state Health and Education Departments suggests that there was genuine progress in youth behavior.

Asked if they consumed alcohol in the 30 days before taking the survey, 36.3 percent of ninth-graders said yes in 1998. Last year, the number was just 14.2 percent. Rates of smoking cigarettes or marijuana similarly declined.

School safety numbers also appeared to improve from prior years. More than 90 percent of surveyed students agreed or strongly agreed in 2013 that they felt safe at school.

“Kids in Minnesota are generally doing pretty well. We’re headed in the right direction,” said Sheila Oehrlein, a supervisor of safety, health and nutrition for the Minnesota Department of Education. “Of course, we’re not happy until all of the risky numbers are zero and all of the protective numbers are 100 percent. So we’ve got work to do.”

One area of concern may be bullying in schools, which was outlined in depth for the first time in the 2013 survey. Weight and physical appearance was a cause of bullying for about one in five students surveyed. About 10 percent of ninth-grade males and 20 percent of ninth-grade females said they were victims of cyberbullying — bullying via text, social media or other online formats — in the month before the survey.

Seniors discuss findings

Results also showed high levels of worry, particularly among female students. Forty percent of 11th-grade females reported significant problems at some point in the year with anxiety or fear that something bad was going to happen, and 45 percent reported trouble sleeping.

Five seniors from Highland Park High School in St. Paul took a break on Friday to discuss the results, and said they face plenty of social pressure — just not centered as much around risky behaviors.

Sofia Cerkvenik said students with college ambitions are trying to meet the standard of the “well-rounded person” that appeals to admissions offices and scholarship funds, which has them studying, working, playing sports and volunteering with the time they have.

At the same time, classmate Caroline Hewes described the pressure of trying to chart a “middle” course through high school’s social circles by standing out, but not too much.

“You want to be smart but you don’t want to be too nerdy,” she said. “You want to speak out but don’t want to be viewed as crazy or, you know, the B word.”

Last year was the first in which the survey could be filled out on computer, a new methodology that could change students’ responses to certain questions. Given such a significant change, state officials decided 2013 would also be the year to modernize some of the questions and switch the survey to different grade levels — even if it made the results difficult to compare with prior surveys.

Instead of surveying sixth-, ninth- and 12th-graders, the state surveyed fifth-, eighth-, ninth- and 11th-graders last spring, in part to capture students in grade school and avoid seniors who are already looking toward graduation or college.

Still, initial analysis suggests the change in methodology didn’t affect the outcome, Oehrlein said.

Once a survey primarily about risky behaviors such as binge drinking, the current survey also examines how students perceive themselves and their self-worth. Among the ninth-graders, 78 percent of males and 69 percent of females said they often or always felt in control of their lives. And 82 percent of boys and 91 percent of girls in that grade said they are accepting of people who are different.

Questions touched on sex

Among high school juniors who completed the survey last spring, 37 percent of males and 38 percent of females said they had ever had sex. Both are lower than the responses given in 2010 by high school seniors, though the change in grades surveyed make comparisons somewhat unreliable.

Of those who were sexually active in 2013, nearly 80 percent indicated they used condoms, birth control pills or other recognized forms of birth control. Of those who weren’t having sex, many simply said they didn’t want to have sex or felt it wasn’t appropriate at their age. Parental or religious objections weren’t mentioned as often in 2013 as they were in 2010.

Lu, Highland Park’s senior class president, said that reflects efforts to educate today’s students about setting personal goals and understanding how choices might affect those goals. Unprotected sex would be a particularly reckless decision, the honors student said.

“I’ve sacrificed way too many sleepless nights to risk it all away,” he said.

Three of the five Highland students have jobs, and four participate in sports. Getting home at 10 p.m. — then starting homework — is fairly common, they said. Their experiences were reflected in the survey responses, which showed a third of 11th-grade males and nearly half of females studying at least two hours per night, a quarter of them working 11 or more hours per week, and a third of them participating in school sports at least five days per week.

Television viewing appears on the decline, but not texting. Half of male 11th-graders and 64 percent of female 11th-graders estimated they spent more than two hours per day texting.

“I love being busy,” said Highland Park senior Tarik Kidane, who works at a sandwich shop and runs cross country and track. “If I have a few hours of free time, it’s like ‘Wow, what do I do?’ ”

 

Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744

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  • Teenagers are doing less:

    Drinking

    Smoking

    Having sex

    Skipping school

    But more:

    Cyberbullying

    Worrying

    Sleeping poorly

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