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Teen Smoking, Sex Hit New Lows But Texting, Fat Are New Dangers

The latest federal look at teenage behavior is reassuring and suggests that some safety messages are getting through to American youth.
Image: A woman uses an Iphone at Apple's Fifth Avenue store on Earth Day in Midtown Manhattan on April 22 in New York City.
The latest survey on teen behavior shows they are smoking less, but texting and driving more.John Moore / Getty Images file

Kids today — they’re smoking less, having less sex, and fighting less often at school. They’re less likely to use drugs, and they’re more likely to wear seat belts and helmets when they are supposed to.

The latest federal look at teenage behavior is reassuring and suggests that some safety messages are getting through to American youth.

On the downside, kids are fatter than ever before and just a third are eating anywhere near as many fruits and vegetables as they need to stay healthy. And less than a third are getting enough sleep.

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And a very troubling new statistic shows that more than 40 percent of teenagers who drive cars admit to having texted or emailed while driving recently.

Image: A girl photographs the Kingston University show on an iPad during day 3 of Graduate Fashion Week 2014 at The Old Truman Brewery on June 2 in London, England.
Teens are spending more time on computers, and an alarming 40 percent say they have texted or emailed while driving recently, the CDC reports.Tristan Fewings / Getty Images, file

But on the whole, it's a snapshot of progress. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which organizes the every-other-year survey, was especially pleased about the drop in smoking.

“I think it's really encouraging that we're seeing the lowest cigarette smoking rate ever,” CDC director Dr. Tom Frieden told NBC News.

“We've actually reached the goal that the nation set for ourselves for 2020 early. So that's one of the most positive trends that we see here — down to 15.7 percent — less than one out of six kids in our high schools is smoking. That's great news.”

About 20 percent of Americans smoke, down from 40 percent in the 1960s.

While smoking is the single biggest preventable cause of death in the United States — it causes heart disease, cancer and lung disease — teenagers face a more immediate risk. Their single biggest killer is motor vehicle crashes, causing 23 percent of deaths among 10 to 24-year-olds, CDC says.

Another 18 percent of young deaths come from other unintentional injuries, 15 percent from homicide and 15 percent by suicide.

The good news is that only 7.6 percent of the students surveyed said they never or rarely wore a seat belt when riding in a car driven by someone else — down from nearly 26 percent in 1991.

“I think it's really encouraging that we're seeing the lowest cigarette smoking rate ever."

Frieden said public health campaigns make a difference.

“These positive trends didn't just happen. They're the result of hard work in communities all over the country — doing things like protecting kids from secondhand smoke, passing laws that are graduated driving laws so that kids don't drink and drive,” he said.

Other car-related behavior isn’t so good. The survey of more than 13,000 students taken at schools across the country showed that nearly 22 percent admit to having ridden one or more times in a car or other vehicle driven by someone who had been drinking in the past month. That’s down, however, from nearly 40 percent in 1991.

Ten percent of teen drivers admit they’ve sometimes gotten behind the wheel after drinking.

Image: A woman smokes a cigarette in Los Angeles, Calif. on May 31, 2012.
Teen smoking rates dropped in the latest CDC report.Jonathan Alcorn / REUTERS file

But most startling, 41.4 percent of teen drivers said they had texted or emailed while driving a car or other vehicle on at least one day during the 30 days before the survey.

"It puts not only them but every other driver on the road at risk,” said Dr. Stephanie Zaza, director of CDC’s Division of Adolescent and School Health. “Teenagers are particularly susceptible to distraction. Parents need to model good behavior.”

Older teen drivers may do it more often — in 2012, the CDC found that 58 percent of high school seniors admitted to texting while driving.

Among all Americans, 57 percent of drivers admit to talking on a hand-held cell phone while on the road. About 35 percent say they have texted while driving,

Teens can be foolhardy in other ways. Nearly 88 percent said they skip wearing a helmet while biking all or most of the time. But this is down from 96 percent of teens in 1991.

“We're very concerned to see the decrease in condom use."

And while teen sex is at a low — 46.8 percent, down from 54 percent in 1991 — just 59 percent said they used a condom the last time. This is up from 46 percent in 1991, but down from 63 percent in 2003 and it’s not good enough, Frieden said.

Just over a third — 34 percent — are currently sexually active.

“We're very concerned to see the decrease in condom use,” Frieden said. “We worked hard, we educated and we had a steady increase in condom use until recent years. Now we've seen a slight decrease in condom use, and that's concerning."

Teens should use condoms even if they are also using other contraception, Frieden said. Pregnancy is a big worry, but STDs are even more likely, and Frieden fears "there may be a sense that, well, there's treatment for HIV so it's not such a terrible problem.”

There may be treatments for HIV but there’s no cure. People must take pills every single day for life and the virus can develop resistance to those medications.

And some kids are relying on dumb luck. Of those who were sexually active, 13.7 percent did nothing to prevent pregnancy during their last sexual intercourse.

Image: A teen drinks a large soda on Oct. 17, 2013 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.
A teen drinks a large soda on Oct. 17, 2013 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.Spencer Platt / Getty Images file

On the good news side, students are fighting less at school. Just under 25 percent had been in a physical fight one or more times during the past year, down from 42 percent in 1991, And just 25 percent had even been in a fight, down from a third in 2011.

The other long-term risks to health are poor diet and a lack of exercise. Teens are trying, but not reaching targets there, the survey indicates.

People should aim to eat at least three servings of fruit and three servings of vegetables every single day. More than 62 percent of the students had managed to get one fruit serving down a day for the week before the survey and 61 percent managed to eat one or more vegetables. Only 15 percent hit the three or more mark.

“We’ve seen a tremendous increase in screen time. It's remarkable."

Fifteen percent said they hadn’t exercised hard enough to get a little out of breath in the week before the survey, and only 47 percent had done so for five of the past seven days — another basic goal to stay healthy. And as a possible result, nearly 14 percent of the students were obese, the survey found, and another 16.6 percent were overweight.

It’s not hard to guess what they were doing instead of exercising. Nearly a third of students said they watched television three or more hours per day on an average school day. And 41.3 percent of students played video games or used a computer for something that was not schoolwork for three or more hours a day on school days.

“We’ve seen a tremendous increase in screen time. It's remarkable,” Frieden said.

“We have to constantly be vigilant about technology,” Zaza said. “Kids are constantly looking for the new thing.”

One other thing that hasn’t changed for years — kids don’t get enough sleep. Most teenagers need nine hours of sleep a night. The survey found that only 31 percent of students were getting eight or more hours a night on school nights.

NBC's Erika Edwards contributed to this story.