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The context of adolescents' lives.

Adolescents today live in a country that is more diverse than the one their parents knew as teenagers. Increased mobility and communication have made the gap between rich and poor more visible, and tensions between racial and ethnic communities more apparent. Some young people, especially blacks, encounter racism and prejudice, just as their parents and grandparents have. Many teenagers of Hispanic descent, meanwhile, were born outside the United States; adolescence may therefore be a more difficult transition for them than for native-born teenagers. (6)

Young people increasingly spend part or all of their youth in single-parent families, families with two working parents or "blended" families; as a consequence, they tend to have less-consistent adult assistance and supervision. In addition, adolescents and their families are often less tied to their communities than were past generations.

More education is needed by young people today to get a good job, but even a college degree is no guarantee of achieving economic independence and job security. Violence is commonplace in many communities. And AIDS has cast the threat of death over sexual relationships at a time when sexual messages pervade virtually all aspects of American life.

In sum, it is a confusing, and at times even frightening, period to be a teenager in America, and to be a parent of a teenager.

Shared Values

Despite their experimentation and apparent rejection of adult values, adolescents share many of their parents' goals and perspectives, including values that affect their sexual and reproductive lives. For example:

* Most teenagers consider responsibility, honesty, self-respect and hard work important values. (7)

* Nearly all adolescents believe that education is important. (8)

* More than eight in 10 teenagers expect to marry, and more than seven in 10 would like to have children. (9)

* The overwhelming majority of young people say their most important goals include having a good marriage and family life, giving their children better opportunities than they had, and finding purpose and meaning in life. (10)

* The vast majority of adolescents have a sense of religious commitment. (11)

* Like adults, about a third of young people think sex before marriage is always a mistake. Teenagers rarely think premarital sex is immoral; rather, they believe young people should abstain from sex because of the risk of getting AIDS or becoming pregnant. (12)

While they may share their parents' values, many teenagers are unable to achieve their goals because economic and social disadvantage impedes their chances of getting a good education, finding a good job and living in a safe neighborhood with both biological parents.

Fractured Society

A large proportion of the country's 24 million teenagers (13) live in families that have difficulty providing such basics as food, clothing and shelter. (14)

* Nearly 40% of women and men aged 15-19 are poor or low-income.

* Hispanic and black teenagers are substantially more likely than white youth to be economically disadvantaged (Figure 2, page 12).

High levels of poverty among children and youth from racial and ethnic minorities, combined with persistent de facto segregation in housing and schools, mean that some adolescents, especially blacks, grow up in economic and racial ghettos, where alienation often thrives and education and marriage may not be the norm. (15)

Disparities in Education

More than eight in 10 young people graduate from high school by age 20, but there are large differences in educational attainment by income group and, among those who are poor or low-income, by racial and ethnic group (16) (Figure 3, page 13). Less education compounds the economic disadvantage of poor youth and of racial and ethnic minorities by making it less likely that these young people will find stable, well-paying jobs. In turn, the poor job prospects for black men, relative to those for whites and for black women, can be a disincentive for young black men to invest in education. (17)

Changes in Family Structure

Poor and low-income teenagers and those from racial and ethnic minorities are more likely than higher income adolescents and white youths to live in families that do not include both biological parents (18) (Figure 4, page 14).

* Among young women aged 14, for example, those who are poor are twice as likely as those who are higher income to live in a family headed by their mother.

* Similarly, black adolescents of that age are about three times as likely as their white counterparts to live in a family headed by their mother.

Even so, the onetime norm of a stable, two-parent family is becoming less common across all racial and income groups. Between the late 1950s and mid-1980s, the proportion of 14-year-old women who did not live with both parents rose from 21% to 88%; most of these young women lived with their unmarried mother. (19) The connection between single-parent households and low income reflects, at least in part, the fact that working women earn lower wages than men, and the fact that unpaid child support and divorce settlements fail to provide adequate income for the custodial parent. (20)

While single parents can and do give their children love and support, providing adequate supervision for their children may be more difficult than it is for two parents. (21) Dealing with instability associated with changes in one's family status, and especially with the personal and financial disruption caused by divorce, may be especially difficult for teenagers, who are forming their own perceptions of adult relationships. (22) Moreover, children living with an unmarried parent or with a parent who remarries maybe aware that their parent is having sex, since roughly two-thirds of formerly married women and men aged 20-44 are sexually active. (23) Research suggests that these adolescents may view the implications of nonmarital childbearing less negatively than others. (24)

Violence and Risk Taking

Violent crime is common in the United States, especially in large cities. (25) Violence or the threat of violence makes many adolescents fearful. (26)

* More than a third of 13-17-year-olds say they are afraid to walk alone at night.

* Almost as many fear for their safety while in school, with good reason: In 1988, about 10% of these young people had been physically assaulted or beaten at school within the past 12 months.

* Some 2 million cases of child neglect and abuse, including sexual abuse, are reported annually; (27) adolescents are more likely than younger children to be abused. (28)

Violent Death. Death among adolescents is rare, and is usually the result of an accident? But of those teenagers who do die, nearly a third are murdered or commit suicide.

* The risk of a violent death is especially high for young black men: Almost half of black men aged 15-19 who die are murdered (Figure 5, page 15). The chance that a black male teenager will die is more than a third again as high as the risk for young white men; the likelihood of being murdered is almost 10 times as high.

* Black teenage women are four times more likely to be murdered than their white counterparts.

* Suicide, on the other hand, is more common among white teenagers, who are twice as likely as blacks to take their own life.

The fear of violence and its consequences may contribute to a willingness among young people to take risks. Some experts, for example, report that innercity, black teenage women fear that young black men's chances of early death or imprisonment are so high that they should grab at the chance for love and children while they are young. (30)

Drug Use and Other Risky Behaviors. Many people experiment with smoking, drinking or drug use at some time during adolescence, but most concern is focused on those who engage heavily in such behaviors.

* About 4% of 14-15-year-olds and 13% of 16-18-year-olds are heavy smokers. (31)

* More than one-third of students in grades 9-12 are heavy drinkers. (32)

* About 14% of high school students have used marijuana within the last 30 days. High school seniors are more likely to engage in drug use and drinking than are younger students. (33)

* By 12th grade, 8% of young people have tried cocaine. (34)

Often, there is considerable overlap in high-risk behaviors. Teenagers who abuse drugs, for example, are much more likely than others to also drink and smoke heavily, drop out of school, have sex at a young age and experience early childbearing. (35)

Teenagers who engage in risky behaviors may have more difficulty in and less support for handling the stresses and tasks of adolescence, may be depressed or may have a greater tolerance or need for risk taking. These young people may need special guidance, mental health interventions and support services.

Extended Transitions

Many of the transitions that have historically occurred during the teenage years, including the move from school to fulltime employment and the establishment of one's own household, now extend into the early 20s and beyond.

Entering the Labor Force. At the beginning of their teenage years, virtually all young women and men are in school; by their late teens and early 20s, however, the majority of young people are in the labor force, although some continue to go to school and work at the same time (36) (Figure 6, page 16). Part-time work has been suggested as a useful step in learning skills and attitudes that will help in the transition to full-time employment; (37) at the same time, a job may interfere with a young person's education, if he or she begins working at too young an age or works too many hours a week. (38) Hispanics and blacks are less likely than whites to combine working with going to school, perhaps because they encounter greater difficulty finding employment. (39)

Young people often have to stay in school longer to achieve the same employment opportunities their parents had. (40) Whether this is because more education is actually needed to perform these jobs or because educational achievement is used as a screen for scarce employment opportunities, there are fewer and poorer employment possibilities for those who have not completed high school, and even for those who have finished high school but have gone no further. Median income of women and men aged 18-24 who have had at least four years of college is about $20,000 and $23,000, respectively--roughly 50% higher than that of young people who have only a high school diploma. (41)

Moving Out. For many young people, living apart from one's parents is the true mark of reaching adulthood. It signals the end of close parental supervision and responsibility, and exposes teenagers to new people, perspectives and ideas. In their late teens and early 20s, many young people go off to college; enroll in the armed forces; or live with groups of friends, a spouse or an unmarried partner. Yet, almost half of 20-24-year-olds live at home with their parents. (42)

Pervasive Messages About Sex

Young people are bombarded with sexual images and messages in advertising, entertainment and virtually all other aspects of their lives. Television shows are filled with sexual embraces and innuendo, but say little about responsible sexual behavior (such as contraceptive use) or the potential negative consequences of sexual activity. (43) Movies, music videos and rap music tend to be even more sexually explicit. Even in presumably protective environments, such as schools, teenagers are often surrounded by sexual messagaes. (44)

* More than eight in 10 public school students in grades 8-11, for example, say they have been the recipient of unwelcome sexual comments or advances, usually from another student (Figure 7, page 17).

* At the same time, nearly six in 10 students report that they have subjected someone else at school to unwanted sexual comments or actions. Many students who engage in such behavior consider it a normal part of school life or a way to get a date.

Inadequate Information. AIDS has brought the specter of debilitating disease and death to sexual activity. Teenagers are worried about AIDS; more than half of young people aged 13-17 think AIDS is the country's most urgent health problem. (45) Despite their concerns and our culture's heavy emphasis on sex, many teenagers believe they have too little accurate information about sex (46) (Figure 8, page 18).

Most young people first learn about sex from their friends, their school or the media, rather than their parents. (47) Yet, many teenagers think parents are the most accurate source of information and would like to talk to their parents more about sex. (48)

* One-third of 15-year-old women say neither parent has talked to them about how pregnancy occurs; about half say a parent has not discussed birth control methods or STDs with them. (49)

* Communication does not appear to improve appreciably as teenagers get older. (50)

* Young men probably get even less information from their parents than do adolescent women.

The overwhelming majority of adolescents receive some sex education, including information about birth control methods and STD prevention, through programs offered in schools, churches or some other organization. (51) Frequently, though, these programs are limited in both scope and duration. School programs, for example, typically emphasize sexual facts and knowledge, rather than skills and interpersonal communication and contraceptive decision making. In addition, they average a total of only five hours of instruction on birth control and six hours on STDs between grades 7 and 12, and a large proportion of sex education teachers feel constrained in what information they can present on these topics. Furthermore, instruction often comes after teenagers have become sexually experienced. (52)

Many teenagers are growing up in poor or low-income families, without access to a good education, good jobs and safe neighborhoods, but all teenagers, whether they are rich or poor, are exposed to an almost constant barrage of sexual messages and innuendos. Yet, despite society's fears about AIDS and adults' frequent bemoaning of high levels of teenage pregnancy and childbearing, adolescents hear relatively little about the importance of responsible sexual behavior and of protecting oneself and one's partner from the risk of pregnancy, HIV and other STDs. In view of the current level of adolescent sexual activity, the failure or inability of parents, schools, other institutions and the media to provide teenagers with the information and skills they need to avoid the negative outcomes of sex not only is sad, it is indefensible.

(6.) Lapham and del Final, 1993, Table 1, P. 4.

(7.) Bezilla, 1988, pp. 132-133. Those surveyed were between the ages of 13 and 17.

(8.) Federer, 1991.

(9.) Bezilla, 1988, pp. 34-35.

(10.) Crimmins, Easterlin and Saito, 1991, Table 8, p. 127.

(11.) George H. Gallup International Institute, 1992.

(12.) Opinion Research Corp., 1993, Questions T6 and T11.

Some 60% of 12-17-year-olds cite AIDS as the reason for teenagers not to have sex, while 25% mention pregnancy. Only 8% say they think premarital sex is morally wrong. Young teenagers are more likely than older teenagers to cite fear of AIDS as a reason not to have sex and are less likely to mention the risk of pregnancy.

(13.) Hollmann, 1993, Table 1, p. 2.

(14.) AGI, 1993a.

(15.) Wilson, 1987, pp. 20-62.

(16.) AGI, 1993a,

(17.) Wilson, 1987, pp. 100-194.

(18.) AGI, 1993b.

(19.) AGI, 1993b.

(20.) Marini, 1989, p.344; Lester, 1990.

(21.) Thomson, MeLanahan and Curtin, 1992, Table 3, p. 373.

(22.) Morrison and Cherlin, 1992; Wu and Martinson, 1993, p.228.

(23.) AGI, 1993b; Billy et al., 1993, Table 1, p. 54.

(24.) Trent and South, 1992, p. 138.

(25.) Federer, 1991; U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1992, Table 299, p. 186.

In 1988, 29% of black households and 24% of white households were victims of crime.

(26.) Bezilla, 1988, pp. 54-55,192-193.

(27.) U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1992, Table 300, p. 186.

(28.) Chadwick and Heaton, 1992, Table H1-20, p.250; Randall, 1992, p.3127.

(29.) NCHS, 1991, Table 1-26, pp. 246-305.

About 16,000 young people aged 15-19 die annually. Some 49% die in accidents, 19% are murdered, 13% commit suicide, 6% die from disease, and 14% die of natural causes.

(30.) Hardy, 1992.

(31.) Moss et al., 1992.

Heavy smoking is defined as having at least five cigarettes a day for at least 10 days a month.

(32.) CDC, 1991a, Table 2, p. 661.

Heavy drinking is defined as having at least five alcoholic drinks on at least one occasion within a 30-day period.

(33.) CDC, 1991a, Table 2, p. 661; AGI, 1993c.

(34.) Institute for Health Policy, 1993, p. 22.

(35.) Dryfoos, 1990,

(36.) AGI, 1993a.

(37.) Osterman, 1980.

(38.) Steinberg, 1982, pp. 196-197.

(39.) AGI, 1993a.

(40.) At the same time, the cost of a college education has increased considerably. In constant dollars, between 1979-1980 and 1989-1990, the annual cost for a public college increased 31%, to $4,978, and the cost for a private college rose 51%, to $12,349. (Federer, 1991.)

(41.) Kominski and Adams, 1992, Table 9, pp. 59-60. Among year-round, full-time workers aged 18-24, the median income for high school graduates in 1990 was $13,300 for women and $15,300 for men. The median income for college graduates was $20,300 for women and $22,800 for men.

(42.) U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1992, Table 64, p. 52.

(43.) Louis Harris and Associates, 1988; Stipp, 1993. On average, 12-17-year-olds watch about 24 hours of television a week. Seven of these hours are during prime time, when, on average, network shows include 28 references to or depictions of sexual behavior per hour. In contrast, there is less than one reference per hour to contraception, abortion, STDs or sexuality education.

(44.) Harris/Scholastic Research, 1993, pp. 7-11, 13.

Overall, 81% of students (85% of young women and 76% of young men) have been exposed to unwelcome sexual comments or actions, ranging from comments or gestures to being forced into some type of sexual behavior other than kissing (11% of all students, 13% of young women and 9% of young men).

(45.) Bezilla, 1988, p. 201.

(46.) AGI, 1993b; AGI, 1993h.

(47.) Opinion Research Corp., 1993, Question T2.

About two-thirds of teenagers aged 12-17 (72% of young men and 63% of young women first learn about sex from someone other than their parents: 24% from friends; 23% from school; and 17% from the media.

(48.) Bezilla, 1988, pp. 15,42.

Among teenagers aged 13-15 and those aged 16-17, 28% would like to talk more about sex with their parents. Some 44% of 13-15-year-olds and 36% of 16-17-year-olds think parents provide the most accurate information. Some 25% of each age-group think they get the most accurate information from their friends, while 24% of 13-15-year-olds and 17% of 16-17-year-olds think teachers are the most accurate source of information.

(49.) AGI, 1993b.

(50.) AGI, 1993b.

(51.) AGI, 1993b.

(52.) Forrest and Silverman, 1989, Figure 1, p. 69; AGI, 1993b; AGI 1993b.


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Many young people are growing up in families with very limited financial
resources: Roughly two-thirds of blacks and Hispanics are poor or

 Blacks aged 15-19, Hispanics aged 15-19,
 1992: 2,573,000 1992: 1,865,000

Poor 37% 35%
Low-income 26% 33%
High income 37% 32%

 Whites aged 15-19,
 1992: 12,131,000

Poor 12%
Low-income 16%
High income 72%

Source: AGI tabulations of data from the March 1992 Current Population

Note: Poverty data in the 1992 Current Population Survey refer to total
income in 1991.

Note: Table made from pie chart


Young people who are economically disadvantaged and, within income
groups, those who are black or Hispanic, are less likely than others to
graduate from high school on schedule.

% of 20-year-olds who have graduated from high school, 1992

 Black Hispanic White

Poor 58% 51% 68%
Low-income 66% 59% 80%
Higher income 91% 86% 94%

Source: AGI tabulations of data from the March 1992 Current Population

Note: Table made from bar graph


Many young women, especially those who are poor or are black, live with
only one biological parent.

% of 14-year-old women not living with both biological parents,

 Low- Higher
Living arrangement Poor income income Black Hispanic White

Mother only 25 19 13 40 18 13
Mother and stepfather 7 11 11 5 8 11
Father only, or
 father and stepmother 3 9 4 4 9 5
Neither parent 9 1 2 8 3 3
 44% 40% 30% 57% 38% 32%

Source: AGI tabulations of data from the 1988 National Survey of Family

Notes: Data are for women who were aged 15-19 at time of survey and
refer to their living arrangements when they were aged 14, i.e., in
1983-1987. "Parent" refers to biological status.

Note: Table made from bar graph


Concerns about violence can add instability and fear to young people's
lives. Almost half of all young black men who die each year are

Deaths per 100,000 15-19-year-olds, 1988

 Women Men
Cause of death Black White Black White

Homicide 12 3 77 8
Suicide 2 5 10 19
Accident 13 28 46 72
Other 23 13 31 20

 50 49 164 119

Source: National Center for Health Statistics, Vital Statistics of the
United States, 1988. Vol. II--Mortality. Part A, U.S. Government
Printing Office, Washington, D.C., 1991, Table 1-9, pp. 14, 36-37.

Note: In this figure, the terms "black" and "white" refer to race;
Hispanics are categorized by race, not ethnicity. Because death is a
rare event among young people, this scale is expressed per 100,000
persons, not per 1,000.

Note: Table made from bar graph


For many young people, the transition from school to labor force extends
well into their 20s.

% of 10-24-year-olds, 1992

 In school only In school and In labour Neither in
 labor force force only school nor in
 labor force

10-14 100
15-17 70 24 3 3
18-19 34 32 26 8
20-24 12 22 53 13

Source: AGI tabulations of data from the March 1992 current Population

Note: "In labor force" includes those unemployed and those unemployed
but actively seeking work.

Note: Table made from bar graph


Most teenagers--women more than men--report receiving unwanted sexual
comments or actions at school.

% of students in grades 8-11 reporting unwanted sexual comments or
actions, 1993

 Female Male

Black 84% 81%
Hispanic 82% 69%
White 87% 75%

Source: Harris/Scholastic Research, Hostile Hallways: The AAUW Survey on
Sexual Harassment in America's Schools, American Association of
University Women Educational Foundation, Washington, D.C., 1993, p. 7.

Note: Sexual comments or actions include experiences during
school-related times. Students were asked whether they had been
subjected to one or more of seven types of actions involving physical
contact, from "touched, grabbed or pinched you in a sexual way" to
"forced you to do some thing sexual, other than kissing," and seven
actions involving no physical contact, including sexual comments, jokes
or gestures, and being "flashed" or "mooned."

Note: Table made from bar graph


Almost half of 15-19-year-olds think the average young person today does
not have enough accurate information about sex and reproduction.

Women and men aged 15-19, 1988: 18,496,000

Not enough information 48%
More than needed 7%
About right 45%

Sources: Women: AGI tabulations of data from the 1988 National Survey of
Family Growth.

Men: AGI tabulations of data from the 1988 National Survey of Adolescent

Total population: U.S. Bureau of the Census, "U.S. Population Estimates,
by Age, Sex, Race and Hispanic Origin: 1980-1991," Current Population
Reports, Series P-25, No. 1095, 1993, Table 1, p. 10.

Note: Table made from pie chart



"Adolescence" is generally viewed as being synonymous with the teenage years--that is, ages 13-19. Where feasible, this report includes information for age-groups 10-14,15-17,18-19 and 20-24, because it is increasingly clear that younger and older teenagers differ in experience and behavior, and that for some young people, transitions historically associated with adolescence occur before age 13 or after age 19.

Sexual activity

In this report, "sexual activity" refers to heterosexual intercourse, although this definition encompasses only one aspect of sexual behavior among heterosexuals and excludes homosexual relationships entirely. (Most national data on sexual behavior are limited to heterosexual relationships.)The term "sexually experienced" refers to those people who have ever had heterosexual intercourse.


"Pregnancy" generally refers to an individual woman's state of being pregnant regardless of whether the outcome of the conception is a birth, abortion or miscarriage.

Race and ethnicity

Race and ethnicity are cross-classified to create three major categories: black non-Hispanic, Hispanic, and white non-Hispanic and other non-Hispanic. Most surveys are not large enough to provide reliable data for smaller groups, such as Asians or Native Americans. These groups are included in the third category. Throughout this report, the three labels have been condensed to "black," "Hispanic" and "white." Information is often presented by race and ethnicity because it is not available by income status; race and ethnicity are used to reflect income status because blacks and Hispanics are so much more likely than whites to be poor.
Total population aged 15-19, 1990:17,754,000

Black 15%
Hispanic 12%
Asian 3%
Other 1%
White 69%

Source: U.S. Bureau of the Census, General Population Characteristics,
United States 1990, CP-1-1, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1992, Table
25, p.34.

Note: Table made from pie chart

Unintended pregnancy

"Unintended pregnancy" refers to a pregnancy that occurs at a time when a woman had wanted to postpone childbearing or had not wanted to have a child at all. Measurement of unintended pregnancy is an inexact science and does not capture different levels of motivation to avoid pregnancy or changing commitment to childbearing after pregnancy occurs.

At risk of unintended pregnancy

A woman is considered "at risk of unintended pregnancy" if she has had intercourse in the last three months, but does not want to have a baby at the present time, although she would be physically able to become pregnant were she and her partner to use no method of contraception.

Sexually transmitted disease (SID)

A sexually transmitted disease is an infection that can be passed from one person to another during sexual intimacy. Transmission most often occurs through vaginal intercourse, but many STDs can also be spread through oral or anal sex. In the past, STDs were generally called venereal diseases; today, they are sometimes referred to as sexually transmitted infections or reproductive tract infections.

Poor, low-income, higher income

"Poor" is defined as having annual family income at or below the poverty level set by the federal government. In 1982, the federal poverty level for a single person was $7,143. For a two-person family, it was $9,137; for a family of four, it was $14,335. In this report, "low-income" is defined as 100%-199% of the federal poverty level. For a single person, this would range from $7,143 to $14,285. "Higher income" is defined as 200% or more of poverty; for a single person, this would be the equivalent of $14,286 or more. Throughout this report, information that is not available by income status is often presented by race and ethnicity.
Total population aged 15-19, 1992: 16,569,000

Poor 18%
Low-income 19%
Higher Income 63%

Source: AGI tabulations of data from the March 1992 Current Populatian

Note: Poverty data in the 1992 Current Population Survey refer to total
income in 1991.

Throughout this report, whenever possible, the latest available data as
of fall 1993 were used.

Note: Table made from pie chart
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Publication:Sex and America's Teenagers
Article Type:Statistical Data Included
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 1994
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