Risky behavior varies by race

Though teenagers in general are notorious for engaging in risky behavior, a study released last week suggests that differences in teens’ risky choices may break down across racial lines.

White teens in Connecticut are more likely than their black and Hispanic peers to binge drink, smoke, and drive while intoxicated, according to a recent study by Connecticut Voices for Children, a New Haven-based nonprofit advocacy group. At the same time, black and Hispanic teens in Connecticut are more likely then white teenagers to engage in risky sexual behavior, be overweight and feel depressed, the study reported. The study examined the results of the 2005 Connecticut Health Survey, in which the Centers for Disease Control surveyed 60 randomly-selected high schools in the state.

Dr. Priscilla Canny, managing director of Voices for Children and the co-author of the study, said many of the study’s results are probably linked to socioeconomic factors, but that the 2005 survey did not provide enough data to allow researchers to explore this possibility.

“Socioeconomic background is always an important confounding variable,” Canny said.

The Voices for Children results are not unique to the state of Connecticut, as all of these general trends can be seen on the national level in both adolescents and adults, said Jody Sindelar, a professor at the Yale School of Public Health.

According to the study, white teens are 1.6 times more likely than non-white teens to binge drink. One-third of black and Hispanic students were overweight or at risk of being overweight, compared to about one-quarter of white students.

Sixty percent of black students watched three or more hours of television daily, compared to only 27 percent of white students.

Connecticut black and Hispanic teens were also more likely than white teens to have had sexual intercourse, four or more sexual partners in their lifetime, sexual intercourse before the age of 13 and an older first sexual partner.

The study also found factors that reduced the rate of risky behavior across all three demographics examined.

“Three factors were associated with reduced risk taking across all three races/ethnicities: parent awareness of students’ whereabouts, academic achievement and living with two parents,” the study said.

For example, students earning mostly C’s, D’s, and F’s were more than twice as likely as students earning mostly A’s and B’s to have had four or more sexual partners.

Canny said she hopes that breaking down the health data along racial and ethnic lines will help intervention programs better target at-risk Connecticut teenagers, discouraging a “one-size fits all” approach.

“The most important thing is that education and prevention programs will receive more attention,” Canny said. “That way, funding can be targeted. Different issues affect different communities.”

For instance, because black and Hispanic youth are twice as likely to not wear seat belts, communities of color should work to increase seat belt use, Canny said in a press release. Meanwhile, white communities should focus on reducing drunk driving, as white teens are twice as likely to drive under the influence, she said.

But Sindelar said that it is important to consider that intervention programs, whether targeted or not, are not always successful.

“Take DARE, for example,” Sindelar said. “It has received a lot of support, but it has been proven to be largely ineffective.”

In response to conversations with Connecticut Voices for Children, the 2007 Connecticut Health Survey, which is currently being distributed in schools, will likely incorporate socioeconomic variables, said Diane Aye, a state Department of Public Health employee and architect of the 2005 survey.

The state’s in-depth analysis of the 2005 survey will be released by the Department of Public Health in the upcoming weeks. Its report does not include analysis along racial and ethnic lines.

Comments