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Media Campaign Fact Sheets

Teen Risky Behaviors

Research shows that certain approaches to parenting can help prevent teens from engaging in all types of risky behaviors, from drug and alcohol use to dangerous driving to sexual activity. This includes having a warm, loving and close relationship with your teen; setting and consistently enforcing clear rules and consequences; closely monitoring your teen's activities and whereabouts; respecting your teen; and setting a good example, especially when it comes to illicit drug and alcohol use.

By the Numbers:

Illicit Drugs

  • Marijuana is the most commonly used illicit drug by 12–17-year-olds. Each day, approximately 3,430 teens try marijuana for the first time.1
  • In 2005, 23.1 percent of 12th-graders and 17.3 percent of 10th-graders were current drug users.2
  • More than four in 10 adolescents have been offered drugs and about one in four have been offered drugs at school.3
  • Research shows that kids who use drugs in early adolescence are more likely to engage in risky behaviors that may put their futures in jeopardy, such as delinquency; having multiple sexual partners; perceiving drugs as not harmful; and having more friends who exhibit deviant behavior.4


  • Each day, approximately 7,500 teens (age 12–17) try alcohol for the first time.5
  • Nationwide, nearly half (44.9%) of high school students reported current alcohol use.6
  • Nearly one in three (27.8%) high school students reported drinking alcohol for the first time before age 13.7
  • Nationwide, 30.2 percent of high school students had ridden in a car or other vehicle one or more times with a driver who had been drinking alcohol.8


  • Each day, approximately 3, 900 teens (aged 12–17) try cigarettes for the first time.9
  • About one in five (22.3%) high school students are current cigarette users.10
  • Before age 13, 18.3 percent of high school students nationwide had smoked a whole cigarette for the first time.11

Sexual Activity

  • Approximately one third (34.3%) of high school students nationwide are currently sexually active.12
  • Among the 34.3 percent of currently sexually active high school students nationwide, 25.4 percent had drunk alcohol or used drugs just before their last sexual intercourse.13
  • One in five (22.4%) teenage girls has at least one birth by age 20.14

Monitoring has been shown to be effective in reducing risky behaviors among teens.

  • The majority of teens say the greatest risk in using marijuana is upsetting their parents (69%), followed by losing the respect of friends and family (67.2%).15
  • Youth who are not regularly monitored by their parents are four times more likely to use illicit drugs.16
  • Kids who learn about the risks of marijuana and other illicit drugs from their parents are far less likely to use drugs.17
  • Parents who involve youth in their own use or misuse of alcohol, tobacco, or other drugs also increase the youth's chances of using earlier than other children. Involvement may include giving a child a "sip" or asking your teen to get you a beer or light a cigarette for you.18
  • Parents' or caregivers' use or abuse of alcohol, tobacco, and illicit drugs significantly increases the youth's chances of using, using early, and being dependent on the substance.19

Research shows that teens who have a positive relationship with their parents (trust, closeness, mutual respect and strong communication) are less likely to engage in risky behaviors.

  • Parents are the most powerful influence on their kids when it comes to illicit drugs. Two-thirds of youth ages 13–17 say upsetting their parents' respect is one of the main reasons they don't smoke marijuana or use other drugs.20
  • Many studies have found that positive relationships or connectedness between parents and adolescents is linked to avoidance or lower use of alcohol, tobacco, and illicit drugs.21
  • Adolescents who have high-quality relationships with their parent are less likely to initiate sex or be sexually active.22
  • Growing evidence shows that the impact of a positive parent-teen relationship extends into adulthood, including lower levels of psychological distress, and self-esteem, happiness and life satisfaction.23
  • When family monitoring and rules are in place, adolescents are much less likely to begin using drugs, primarily by affecting the teen's choice of friends.24
  • Studies show that parents who are overly permissive and unwilling to set limits deprive teens of needed guidance and supervision, which puts them at risk of all kinds of risk behavior. Lax, inconsistent or excessively harsh discipline and excessive, unrealistic demands have also been associated with youth drug use.25

Setting rules and clear expectations can help prevent teen drug use and other risky behaviors.

  • Parental disapproval of illicit drug use plays a strong role in turning back drug use. Youth who felt their parents did not strongly disapprove of marijuana use were about six times as likely to use marijuana as youth who felt their parents would disapprove.26
  • High school teens whose parents communicate with them about key life transitions are more likely to honestly report what they are doing and with whom they are spending time with (96% vs. 77%), are more likely to be influenced by their parents not to drink (87% vs. 53%) and are more likely to be influenced by their parents to not use drugs (91% vs. 69%).27
  • Research shows teens whose parents use a "balanced" parenting style—are warm and involved, firm in setting limits and show respect for their teen—do better in school, report less depression and anxiety, have higher self-esteem and self-reliance, and are less likely to engage in all types of risky problem behavior, including drug and alcohol use, sex or violence.28


1 SAMHSA. (2005). National Survey on Drug Use and Health 2004.

2 National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) website, www.drugabuse.gov and www.monitoringthefuture.org. The Monitoring the Future Study 2005.

3 Partnership for a Drug-Free America. (2005). Marijuana Report: Assessment of the National Anti-Drug Media Campaign.

4 Brook, JS; Balka, EB; and Whiteman, M. (1999). The risks for late adolescence of early adolescent marijuana use. American Journal of Public Health.

5 SAMHSA. (2005). National Survey on Drug Use and Health 2004.

6 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2004). Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System, 2003.

7 Ibid.

8 Ibid.

9 SAMHSA. (2005). National Survey on Drug Use and Health 2004.

10 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2004). Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System, 2003.

11 Ibid.

12 Ibid.

13 Ibid.

14 Vital Statistics of the United States, 1999, Vol. 1, Natality.

15 Partnership for a Drug-Free America. (2005). Marijuana Report: Assessment of the National Anti-Drug Media Campaign.

16 Metzler, Rusby and Biglan. (1999). Community builders for success: monitoring after-school activities. Oregon Research Institute.

17 SAMHSA. (2005). Perceived Parental Disapproval of Substance Use. National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 2004.

18 Hansen, W.B., Graham, J.W., Sobel, J.L., Shelton, D.R., Flay, B.R., & Johnson, C.A. (1987). The consistency of peer and parent influences on tobacco, alcohol, and marijuana use among young adolescents. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 10, 559-579; Brook, J.S., Brook, D.W., Gordon, A.S., Whiteman, M., & Cohen, P. (1990). The psychosocial etiology of adolescent drug use. A family intersectional approach. Genetic, Social, and General Psychology Monographs, 116(2); Jackson, C., Henriksen, L., Dickinson, D., & Levine, D.W. (1997). The early use of alcohol and tobacco: Its relation to children's competence and parents' behavior. American Journal of Public Health, 87(3/March), 359-364.

19 Hawkins, J.D., Catalano, R.F. & Miller, J.Y. (1992). Risk and protective factors for alcohol and other drug problems in adolescence and early adulthood: Implications for substance abuse prevention. Psychological Bulletin, 112(1), 64-105; Biglan, T., Duncan, T.E., Ary, D.V. & Smolkowski, K. (1995). Peer and parental influences on adolescent tobacco use. Jounral of Behavioral Medicine, 18(4), 315-330.

20 Partnership for a Drug-Free America. (2002) Partnership Attitude Tracking Study.

21 Hundleby, J.D., & Mercer, G.W. (1987). Family and friends as social environments and their relationship to young adolescents' use of alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 49, 151-164; Resnick, M.D., Bearman, P.S., et al. (1997). Protecting adolescents from harm: Findings from the National Longitudinal Study for Adolescent Health, Journal of the American Medical Association, 278(10): 823-832. As cited in Moore, K.A., Guzman, L., Hair, E., Lippman, L. & Garrett, S. (2004). Parent-teen relationships and interactions: Far more positive than not. Child Trends Research Brief, Publication 2004-25.

22 Miller, B.C. (1998). Families Matter: A research sysnthesis of family influences on adolescent pregnancy. Washington, DC: The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.

23 Umberson, D. (1992). Relationships between adult children and their parents: Psychological consequences for both generations. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 54, 664-674.

24 Mann, A. (2003). Relationships matter: Impact of parental, peer factors on teen, young adult substance use. NIDA Notes, 18(2), August 2003.

25 Kumpfer, K., Olds, D., Alexander, J., Zucker, R., & Gary, L. (1999). Family etiology of youth problems. In R.S. Ashery (Ed.), Research meeting on drug abuse prevention through family intervention. NIDA Research Monograph 177, pp. 42-78.

26 SAMHSA. (2005). National Survey on Drug Use and Health 2004.

27 SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions) and Liberty Mutual. (2005). Teens Today 2005.

28 Steinberg, L. (2001). We know some things: Parent-adolescent relationships in retrospect and prospect. Presidential Address. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 11(1), 1-19. Lamborn, S., Mounts, N., Steinberg, L., & Dornbusch, S. (1991). Patterns of competence and adjustment among adolescents from authoritative, authoritarian, indulgent and neglectful homes. Child Development, 62, 1049-1065; Steinberg, L., Lamborn, S., Darling, N., Mounts, N., & Dornbusch, S. (1994). Over-time changes in adjustment and competence among adolescents from authoritative, authoritarian, indulgent and neglectful families. Child Development, 65, 754-770; and Steinberg, L., Lamborn, S., Dornbusch, S., & Darling, N. (1992). Impact of parenting practices on adolescent adjustment: Authoritative parenting, school involvement, and encouragement to succeed. Child Development, 63, 1266-1281.