Overview of Youth At-Risk Behavior

An unhealthy diet is just one of the at-risk youth behaviors you should be concerned with.
Vincent Besnault / Photographer's Choice / Getty Images

At-risk behavior is anything that puts youth at risk for future negative consequences, like poor health, injury or death. And while risky behavior as a teen isn't a new concept (most adults can likely recall at least a few poor choices they made as a teen), the type of risks teens are taking are shifting.

One of the reasons risky behavior is so common during adolescence is because the teen brain isn't yet fully developed. Consequently, teens struggle to think about long-term consequences.

In addition, they experience the "not me" phenomenon. They never imagine that injury, pregnancy, or accidents could happen to them.

Tracking At-Risk Behaviors

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) tracks certain youth-at-risk behaviors that they have deemed important and observable in their Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS). Every two years, a report is created on different behavior categories.

6 Categories of At-Risk Behavior

  • Behaviors that contribute to unintentional injuries and violence
  • Tobacco use, including when tobacco was first used, how many cigarettes are smoked per day
  • Alcohol and other drug use
  • Sexual behaviors that contribute to unintended pregnancy and STDs, including HIV infection
  • Unhealthy dietary behaviors
  • Physical inactivity, including obesity and asthma

Behavior That Contributes to Unintentional Injuries and Violence

The 2015 YRBSS report showed these statistics about behaviors contributing to injuries and violence:

  • 81% never or rarely wore a bicycle helmet
  • 42% of teens had emailed or texted at least once while driving
  • 8% of teens had driven after drinking within the past 30 days
  • 20% of teens had ridden with someone who had been drinking at least once in the past 30 days
  • 16% of teens had carried a weapon for at least one day during the prior 30 days

Tobacco Use

The 2015 YRBSS report showed these statistics about tobacco use:

  • 32% of teens had tried a cigarette
  • 10% smoked a cigarette within the past 30 days
  • 2% of teens reported smoking daily

Alcohol and Drug Use

The 2015 YRBSS report showed these statistics with regard to alcohol and drug use:

  • 63% of teens had had at least one drink of alcohol in their lives
  • 33% had had at least one drink in the 30 days prior to the survey
  • 18% had had five or more drinks in a row
  • 39% had used marijuana at least once in their lives
  • 22% had used marijuana at least once in the past 30 days

Sexual Behaviors

The 2015 YRBSS report showed these statistics with regard to sexual behavior:

  • 41% of teens had had sexual intercourse in their lives
  • 12% of teens had sex with four or more people
  • 30% of teens had had sex with at least one person in the three months prior to the survey
  • 57% of the sexually active teenagers reported using condoms
  • 14% said they had not used any birth control methods

Dietary Behaviors

The dietary behaviors of teens in the 2015 YRBSS report showed:

  • 7% had not eaten vegetables in the week prior to the survey
  • 5% had not eaten fruit or drank 100% fruit juice in the week prior to the survey
  • 38% had not drunk milk during the week prior to the survey

Physical Activity

Physical activity of teens in the 2015 YRBSS report showed:

  • 14% of teens hadn't received an hour of exercise in the past week
  • 47% were physically active for 60 minutes per day on five or more days
  • 42% used a computer for things other than school works for 3 or more hours per day
  • 35% watched television for three or more hours per day

How Parents Can Use the Results

It's important for parents to know the most common behaviors teens are engaging in that could lead to negative consequences. You can use the survey results to better understand the types of pressure your teen may face or the behaviors your teen might be tempted to engage in.

You can also use the survey to start a conversation with your teen. Say something like, "I was reading a survey the other day that said 32 percent of teens have tried smoking. Do any of your friends smoke?" 

It's important to hold ongoing conversations with your teen about risky behavior. Listen to your teen's concerns and provide education whenever possible.

2 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Arain M, Haque M, Johal L, et al. Maturation of the adolescent brainNeuropsychiatr Dis Treat. 2013;9:449–461. doi:10.2147/NDT.S39776

  2. Kann L, McManus T, Harris WA, et al. Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance  United States, 2015. MMWR Surveill Summ. 2016;65(No. SS-6):1–174. doi:10.15585/mmwr.ss6506a1

Additional Reading
  • "Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance — United States, 2015." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2016)

By Amy Morin, LCSW
Amy Morin, LCSW, is a psychotherapist and international bestselling author. Her books, including "13 Things Mentally Strong People Don't Do," have been translated into more than 40 languages. Her TEDx talk,  "The Secret of Becoming Mentally Strong," is one of the most viewed talks of all time.