Bad news makes good headlines, so good news sometimes flies under the radar. It grabs people’s attention that young people are burdened with unprecedented debt, or that marijuana use is increasing. But many indicators of youth well-being are improving. Because I work on maintaining the Child Trends DataBank, I see these hopeful trends every day, and think it is important to sometimes emphasize the positive ones.
Among the most well-known of these positive trends is the steady decrease in teen pregnancies and teen births. President Obama cheered this trend in his State of the Union Address in January. In 1990, teen pregnancies had hit a high of 117 pregnancies per 1,000 teens. In 2010, the rate was less than half that. Teen births show a similar trend, falling from 62 to 27 births per 1,000 teens between 1991 and 2013. This is a positive story because teenage mothers, compared with older mothers, are less likely to finish high school or go on to college, and more likely to be dependent on government benefits, especially in the first years after giving birth.
Teens are also less likely to die than in past decades. Teen mortality has been falling since the early nineties. Fatal car accidents, the most common form of accidental death among teens, are decreasing. In 2011, only 13 teens per 100,000 died in car accidents, compared with 27 in 2002, 37 in 1986, and 42 in 1980. The slight increase in the use of seatbelts among teens and the decrease in drunk driving are trends likely to be related to these falling rates of death. In 1995, 39 percent of high-school students reported riding with a driver who had been drinking (in the past month) — in 2013, only 22 percent reported the same.
There have also been positive trends in the rate of teen drug use. The proportion of “substance-free” twelfth-graders (those who reported that they had not smoked, drunk alcohol, or used illegal drugs at all in the past month) increased from 39 to 52 percent between 1997 and 2012, and patterns were similar for eighth- and tenth-graders. Among tenth-graders, binge drinking (in the past two weeks) went from 24 to 14 percent (between 2000 and 2013), heavy smoking went from 18 to four percent (between 1995 and 2013), and illicit drug use in the past year (excluding marijuana) went from 18 to 11 percent (between 1995 and 2013). The exception to this positive news on drugs is that recently, more teens have been smoking marijuana.
High school dropout rates have continued to fall, and attainment of higher education has continued to rise. In 2013, only seven percent of youth 16 to 24 were out of school with no diploma, compared with 12 percent in 1990 and 15 percent in 1970. Among all young adults ages 25 to 29 in 1990, 45 percent had some college education, and 23 percent had a bachelor’s degree. In 2013, 63 percent had some college education and 34 percent had a bachelor’s degree.
There are other positive trends. The rate of teens in juvenile detention was reduced by a third between 2003 and 2011. Fewer teens report that they have been in a physical fight in the past year, with especially large reductions between 2011 and 2013. More teens are volunteering in their communities than ever before.
All in all, while there is plenty of room for improvement, things are looking up for U.S. teens!
Mae Cooper, senior research assistant