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Adolescent Populations: An Overview of Issues and Social Problems

Abstract and Keywords

This entry begins with a presentation of demographic data from the U.S. Census 2010 on the adolescent population 12 to 19 years by age, gender, and ethnicity. A summary of the information available on major issues and problems affecting adolescent populations is presented from numerous governmental and empirical research sources on the following topics: education, runaway and homeless youth, sexual behavior, substance abuse, suicide, victimization and criminal behavior, and texting while driving.

Keywords: adolescents, problems of adolescence, adolescents and education, adolescent sexual behavior, adolescent substance abuse, adolescents and STDs, adolescent suicide, adolescents and violence, runaway and homeless youth


Census 2010 recorded 34,430,581 adolescents ages 12 to 19, an increase of over two million from Census 2000. However, in 2010 adolescents constituted 11.15% of the U.S. population, a slight reduction from 11.5% in 2000 (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2007). The distribution by age, gender, and ethnicity appears in Table 1 (U.S. Census, 2010 Summary File 1).

Males constituted a slightly larger percentage (51.2%) of the adolescent population than females (48.8%), similar to the percentages for 2000 (51.3% vs. 48.7%) and 1990 (51.2% versus 48.6%). White adolescents comprised 55.8% (a noticeable decrease from 63.2% in 2000 and 69.4% in 1990). The percentages by ethnic group for the remaining adolescent cohort are as follows: African American 14.7%, Hispanic/Latino 20.9%, Asian/Pacific Islander 4.4%, American Indian 0.8%, two or more races 2.95%, other 0.27%.


School Dropouts

The high school dropout rate in the U.S. reached a record low in 2013, with 7% of 18- to 24-year-olds dropping out of high school before graduating. This is part of over a decade of decline in the national dropout rate from 12% in 2000. Reduction in dropout rates among African American and Hispanic/Latino youth account in the most part for the noted decline, with Hispanic/Latino dropout rates declining from 32% in 2000 to 14% in 2013, and the rate among African American 18 to 24 years old dropping to 8%. Dropout rates for non-Hispanic White and Asian youth remained the lowest at 5% and 4%, respectively. Although the progress in reducing the dropout rate is encouraging, it is important to recognize that the lower rate still constitutes 2,215,000 youth entering the labor force without having completed high school, the highest number being 889,000 Hispanic/Latino youth (Fry, 2014).

Over the years, reasons for leaving school reported by high school dropouts included both school-related (irrelevance of the curriculum, lack of interest in school, dissatisfaction with teachers, fear of not fitting in, fear for safety, and discipline) and non-school-related (financial needs, family problems, substance abuse, pregnancy and marriage) problems (Weis, Farrar, & Petri, 1989). Low-income students have a 10% rate, twice that of middle-income (~5%) and four times that of high-income (∼2.5%) students (Snyder et al., 2006).

There appears to be a direct relationship between years of school completed and employability. In 2013, the unemployment rate was 27.9% for high school dropouts and 25.8% for high school graduates. Young women were particularly disadvantaged by dropping out, with the unemployment rate for female graduates at 22.2% and for female dropouts at 37.6% (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2013). Moreover, high school dropouts are significantly disadvantaged in the labor force, earning 40% less and having an unemployment rate nearly double that of others in the labor force. For example, in 2009 the unemployment rate for high school dropouts was 14.6% in contrast to an average of 7.9% for all workers, and their weekly earnings were $454 compared to the median of $774 for all workers (with a range between $626 for high school graduates to $1,532 for those with doctoral degrees) (Occupational Outlook Quarterly, Summer 2010).

Special Education

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) ensures that youth with disabilities are provided free and appropriate public school education. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reports annually on the current status of children and youth with disabilities who receive services through IDEA.

In the 2009–2010 academic year, a total of 408,642 students with disabilities ages 14–21 received educational services under IDEA. The number decreased slightly to 402,038 in academic year 2010–2011. In both years, the overwhelming majority served were ages 17 (149,616 in 2009–2010; 145,037 in 2010–2011) and 18 (153,432 in 2009–2010; 152,198 in 2010–2011) (National Center for Education Statistics, 2013).

College Attendance

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that approximately two-thirds (65.9%) of high school graduates enrolled in college, amounting to two million students. Of those who graduated and enrolled in college, the rates were 79.19% for Asian, 67.1% for non-Hispanic White, 59.9% for Hispanic/Latino, and 59.3% for African American youth. The rate for females (68.4%) was slightly higher than for males (63.5%).

Approximately one-third of those attending college were also employed or looking for work, 33.7% of male and 34.5% of female students. The majority (92.8%) of recent high school graduates in college were attending full time. While 31.0% of full-time students participated in the labor force, 73.8% of part-time students were labor force participants. Approximately 60% of recent high school graduates in college attended a four-year institution (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2014).

Runaway and Homeless Youth

Runaway youth are defined as those “under the age of eighteen who are away from home at least overnight without parent or caretaker permission” (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1983). Homeless youth are defined as those 18 or younger unable to live safely with a relative, or those 18 to 21 who have no shelter available to them (Fernandes, 2007). A report from the American Medical Association’s Council on Scientific Affairs confirmed that most youth on the street are both runaways and homeless, because they do not have a home to which they can or desire to return.

Various typologies have been suggested for classifying and understanding runaway youth. Three major classifications of runaways are still used (Zide & Cherry, 1992):

  1. 1. Those, usually from a fairly well-functioning family system, “running to” or in search of some form of adventure or excitement;

  2. 2. Those “running from” a dysfunctional family system which might include a substance abusing parent and physical or sexual abuse, which has been found to occur with higher rates within the runaway population (Whitbeck & Simons, 1990; Angenet & de Man, 1989; Janus, Burgess, & McCormack, 1987; Caton, 1986).

  3. 3. Those “thrown out” by their families, often after a history of conflict with the family and problems in school and the community.

Zide and Cherry (1992) add a fourth group they label “forsaken,” representing adolescents, usually social isolates with low self-esteem, who have been abandoned to their own resources for survival due to the inability of the family to continue to provide support.

The number of runaway youth has increased at an alarming rate over the past two decades, with estimates of 1.3 million to 2.8 million per year (Greene, 1995; Hammer, Finkelhor, & Sedlak, 2002; The National Network of Runaway & Youth Services, 1991; National Conference of State Legislatures, 2013). The National Runaway Switchboard claims that approximately 5,000 of these youth die yearly due to “assault, illness, or suicide” (National Conference of State Legislatures, 2013, p. 1). The vast majority of runaway and homeless youth are from economically disadvantaged families who are no longer able to support them (Zide & Cherry, 1992).

There was a 200% increase in youth reporting economic reasons to the National Runaway Switchboard between 2005 and 2008. Other factors contributing to running away cited by the youth included physical abuse (46%), emotional abuse (38%), and sexual abuse (17%) (National Conference of State Legislatures, 2013). The National Runaway Safeline (2014) reports higher figures for sexual abuse at 34% for males and females.

Table 1. U.S. Census 2010 Summary File 1 (SF 1) 100% Data, Tables PCT12; PCT12H–PCT12O


Total Population




African American Alone

Hispanic or Latino

Asian or Pacific Islander

American Indian or Alaskan Native

Two or More Races


























































































Total 12–19











Runaway youth are a particularly at-risk population. The NISMART-2 survey in 1999 found that an estimated 1,190,900 (71%) were endangered during their runaway episode by factors such as substance dependency, use of hard drugs, sexual or physical abuse, presence in a place where criminal activity was occurring, or extremely young age (13 years old or younger) (Hammer, Finkelhor, & Sedlak, 2002). Many runaways did not seek help at shelters; 12% of runaway and homeless youth spent at least one night outside, in a park, on the street, under a bridge or overhang, or on a rooftop (Westat, Inc., 1997). A 1995 survey revealed that 7% of youth in runaway and homeless youth shelters and 14% of youth on the street admitted to having traded sex for money, food, shelter, or drugs in the previous twelve months (Greene, 1995). Pregnancy is also a high-risk issue; approximately 48.2% of youth living on the street and 33.2% of youth living in a shelter reported having been pregnant (Greene & Ringwalt, 1998). Finally, runaway youth are 6 to 12 times more likely to become infected with HIV than other youth (Rotheram-Borus et al., 2003).

LGBT youth account for approximately 20% of the runaway/homeless youth population. They are at greater risk than heterosexual runaway and homeless youth, being “7.4 times more likely to experience acts of sexual violence,” with 58.7% sexually victimized in contrast to 33.4% of their heterosexual cohorts. Furthermore, LGBT runaway and homeless youth have a substantially higher suicide rate (62%) than their heterosexual counterparts (29%) (National Coalition for the Homeless, 2009).

Sexual Behavior

Sexual Intercourse and Contraception

On the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance, 2013 survey, 46.8% of ninth through twelfth grade youth reported having had sexual intercourse, a rate relatively unchanged from the 2005 (46.5%) and 1999 (47.7%) surveys. As in the earlier surveys, the percentage increased by grade level (9th = 30.0%, 10th = 41.4%, 11th = 54.1%, 12th = 64.1%). Some differences were noted by ethnicity, with African American youth having the highest percentage (60.6%), followed by Hispanic/Latino (49.2%) and White (43.7%) adolescents. Percentages for males were higher than for females among African American (68.4% vs. 53.4%) and Hispanic/Latino (51.7% vs. 46.9%) youth, but slightly higher among non-Hispanic White females (45.3%) than males (42.2%). About a third (34.0%) of the youth surveyed reported currently being sexually active: 42.1% of African American, 34.7% of Hispanic/Latino, and 32.8% of non-Hispanic White youth (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2014).

Nearly two-thirds (59.1%) of adolescents who were currently sexually active reported using a condom at last intercourse, with the highest percentage among African American youth (64.7%), particularly males (73.0%), followed by Hispanic/Latino (58.3%) and non-Hispanic White (57.1%) youth. Birth control pill usage was relatively low (19.0%), with the most frequent use by twelfth graders (23.7%) and non-Hispanic White adolescents (25.9%). Use of birth control pills has decreased substantially over several decades, for example, from a high of 63.9% in 1982 (Ventura et al 2006) to 19.0% in 2013. Moreover, there were substantial ethnic differences, with the majority using birth control pills among non-Hispanic White youth (25.9%) and few among Hispanic/Latino (9.0%) and African American (8.2%) youth. A negligible percentage of adolescents used other forms of contraception, such as the IUD, implant, shot, patch, or birth control ring. Furthermore, 13.7% of youth reported using no method of pregnancy prevention at last sexual intercourse, with the highest percentages among Hispanic/Latino youth (19.7%) followed by African American (15.9%) and non-Hispanic White (11.1%) youth. Percentages not using birth control at last sexual intercourse were highest for Hispanic/Latino (23.7%) and African American (21.2%) females. Of grades nine through twelve, ninth graders were the most likely (16.3%) to report not using birth control (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2014).

Pregnancy and Pregnancy Outcomes

After reaching an all-time high throughout the 1980s and peaking in 1990, the adolescent pregnancy rate has consistently and substantially declined each subsequent year to a record low in 2012. The pregnancy rate for adolescents 15 to 17 years of age of 77.1 per 1,000 in 1990 dropped to 67.4 in 1995, 50.8 in 2000, 44.4 in 2002, and to an all-time low of 14.1 in 2012. The birth rate for 18- to 19-year-olds was also at a record low of 51.4, a drop of 45% since 1991. Although declines were noted for 15- to 17-year-olds across all ethnic groups, the rates and the amount of decline varied. In 2012, Asian/Pacific Islander (API) and non-Hispanic White adolescent females had the lowest birth rates per 1,000, 4.1 and 17.7 for API females 15 to 17 and 18–19 years of age, respectively, and 8.4 and 37.9 for non-Hispanic White females 15 to 17 and 18 to 19 years old, respectively. Rates for American Indian females were 17.0 for those 15 to 17 and 60.5 for those 18 to 19. The highest rates were among African American (21.9 for ages 15–17; 74.1 for ages 18–19) and Hispanic/Latino (25.5 for ages 15–17; 77.2 for ages 18–19) adolescent females (National Vital Statistics reports, 2013).

Sexually Transmitted Infections

Sexually transmitted infections are a serious adolescent health problem. Approximately one-half of all sexually transmitted cases are among 15- to 24-year-olds (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2012a).


From 2008 through 2011, the rate of diagnosed HIV/AIDS cases remained stable for adolescents ages 13 to 19. In 2011, there were 53 cases (rate = 0.6) for 13- to 14-year-olds and 2,240 cases (rate = 10.4) for 15- to 19-year-olds (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2012a). However, the CDC estimates that there are large numbers of undiagnosed HIV positive cases among adolescents, that more than half of undiagnosed persons fall within the 13- to 24-year age group, and “although 13–19 year olds represented only 4.8% of new HIV diagnoses, it is likely that many young adults—those between age 20–30 may have become infected with HIV during their teen years” (Office of Adolescent Health, 2012, p. 2). Moreover, the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance data indicate that only 12.9% of adolescents have sought HIV testing.

African American adolescents are particularly at risk, constituting nearly 70% of the HIV positive diagnoses among 13- to 19-year-olds. The majority of HIV infections (approximately 80%) are among male adolescents, 90% of which result from male-to-male sexual contact. HIV positive diagnoses among adolescent females result primarily from heterosexual contact (Office of Adolescent Health, 2012).


Chlamydia is the most frequently reported infection, despite the fact that most cases go undiagnosed (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Division of STD Prevention, 2014). Chlamydia rates among 15- to 19-year-olds have risen steadily each year from 1996 at 1080.0 per 100,000 to an all-time high of 2082.7 in 2011. Female adolescents have a substantially higher rate (3,416.5) than their male cohorts (803.0). Rates are highest among African American youth, 4,868.7 compared with the rates for Hispanic (1,253.0) and non-Hispanic White (741.7) youth (Child Trends, 2013). The spread of chlamydia may be partially due to the fact that it is usually asymptomatic and that adolescent females are more susceptible due to increased cervical ectopy (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2012a).


Gonorrhea is the infectious disease reported second in frequency in the U.S. (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2012). In 2011, there were 88, 139 cases of gonorrhea infection among youth 15 to 19 years of age, a rate of 399.9 per 100,000 (Child Trends, 2013). Gonorrhea is most prevalent among young women and female adolescents, with the 2011 rate of 556.5 for females 15 to 19 years of age second only to young women 20 to 24 years of age at 584.2. By comparison, the rate for male adolescents 15 to 19 years of age is 248.6 (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2012). The incidence of gonorrhea is highest, and substantially so, among African American youth, with a rate of 1438.9 compared with rates of 138.0 for Hispanic/Latino and 75.4 for non-Hispanic White Youth (Child Trends, 2013).


When using data to determine the extent of the problem in a specific community or geographical area, it is important to take into consideration both the incidence (number of cases) and the rate. For example, in areas with smaller adolescent populations, the incidence may appear low compared to areas with larger adolescent populations, but the rates may be higher, indicating a higher percentage of the population in need of intervention.

Substance Abuse

Drug Abuse

Trends in adolescent drug use showed an increase from the mid-1970s to 1982, followed by a slow, but steady, reduction in the use of illegal substances (Oetting & Beauvais, 1990) until the 1990s, when drug abuse began to increase again. Following the peak in drug use in the mid-1990s, the Monitoring the Future (MTF) survey reported illicit drug use has been on the decline. For example, in the MTF 2006 survey of 48,460 students, the past year prevalence for 8th-grade drug use dropped by 37% since the peak year (1996), 25% for 10th graders since the peak year (1997), and 14% for 12th graders since the peak year (1997). Drug use decrease was noted for marijuana, methamphetamines, inhalants, cigarettes and nicotine, crack cocaine, heroin, anabolic steroids, and alcohol. However, some drugs demonstrated increased use or did not change, so that their current levels continued to raise concern. Prescription drugs such as OxyContin and Vicodin remained stable at relatively high levels (The National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2006).

Monitoring the Future 2013 (n = 41,700) found a five-year trend, from 2008 to 2013, indicating a continuing increase in marijuana use among the three grade levels. Daily use of marijuana increased from 0.9% in 2008 to 1.1% in 2013 among 8th graders, from 2.7% to 4.0% among 10th graders, and from 5.4% to 6.5% among 12th graders. In 2013, annual prevalence of marijuana/hashish use for youth was 12.7% for 8th graders, 29.8% for 10th graders, and 36.4% for 12th graders. Figures were notably lower for all illicit drugs other than marijuana: 5.8% for grade 8, 10.9% for grade 10, and 17.3% for grade 12. Among these drugs, the highest percentages were hallucinogens (4.5%) and Ecstasy (4.0%) for 12th graders, Ecstasy (3.6%) for 10th graders, and inhalants (5.2%) for 8th graders. This inhalant use, however, was the lowest level in the history of the survey. Among prescription drugs, illicit use of amphetamines had the highest prevalence for all three grades: 2.6% for 8th, 5.9% for 10th, and 8.7% for 12th. A large number of drugs were described as “holding steady in 2013,” including: “LSD, amphetamines, MDMA (marketed as “molly,” a reputedly purer form of Ecstasy), crack, methamphetamines, crystal methamphetamines, heroin, Rohypnol, Ketamine, steroids, and sedatives” (p. 6), as well as nonmedical use of prescription drugs such as Ritalin, OxyContin, and Adderall (National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2014).

Among those who used amphetamines, the majority (56.1%) of 12th graders reported receiving the drug free from a friend, followed by purchasing from a friend (43.6%). If attitudes are viewed as a precursor for use, attitudes towards the harmfulness of various substances leave much room for improvement and education in this regard. Table 2 presents 2013 rates for perceived harmfulness and disapproval of drugs by grade.

Table 2. from Monitoring the Future 2013, Tables 6–11









Tried marijuana once







Marijuana occasionally







Marijuana regularly







Ecstasy once or twice







Ecstasy occasionally





Note that as youth age, the percentage of those believing that the use of marijuana is harmful decreases. Interestingly, a different trend is seen with regard to Ecstasy, with the perceived harmfulness increasing with age. (Unfortunately, data for 12th graders regarding occasional use were missing.) Although the data do not provide a reason for this trend (e.g., greater experience seeing negative effects), it is clear that the youngest population is the most vulnerable in this regard.

The trends with regard to disapproval of use of marijuana and Ecstasy parallel those of harmfulness cited above, with disapproval of marijuana use decreasing by age and disapproval of Ecstasy increasing by age. Finally, availability of illicit substances increases substantially by age, with only 39.1% of 8th graders reporting availability of marijuana, in contrast to 69.7% of 10th graders and 81.4% of 12th graders. Ecstasy was available to 9.5% of 8th graders, 20.7% of 10th graders, and 35.1% of 12th graders. Eighth graders reported low availability of all other drugs, but by 12th grade the majority of the drugs listed in the survey were available to one-quarter or more of the youth, with amphetamines and narcotics other than heroin leading the list at 42.7% and 46.5%, respectively (National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2014).

Frequent users of marijuana and poly drug users have been identified as a subset of the population, manifesting personality characteristics indicative of psychological disturbance (Shedler & Block, 1990). Over a decade ago, some researchers viewed marijuana use as normative behavior in American adolescents, given developmental issues and social norms, as long as use remained on an infrequent and experimental basis (Newcomb & Bentler, 1988; Shedler & Block, 1990). Researchers studying the effects have moved away from the normative rite of passage view to seeing it as a potentially harmful substance that has doubled in potency since the mid-1980s (CASA White Paper, 2004; Office of National Drug Control Policy, 2007).

Cigarette Use

Cigarette use has continued to decline after peaking in 1996 at 21.0% of 8th graders, 30.4% of 10th graders, and 34.0% of 12th graders. By contrast, 2013 saw the lowest percentage ever recorded for all three grades: 6.8% of 8th graders, 12.3% of 10th graders, and 20.4% of 12th graders. According to the 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (2014), cigarette use has declined faster among youth ages 12 to 17 than among the general populace, decreasing from 13% in 2002 to 6.6% in 2012 (National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2014). The figures provided by the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance survey 2013 offer a more detailed account of cigarette use, reporting that 15.7% smoked at least one cigarette in the previous 30 days and 8.6% more than 10 cigarettes in one day. Among the 15.7%, 48.0% had tried to quit smoking in the preceding year (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2014).

Alcohol Abuse

Alcohol is the drug of choice and the drug most frequently abused by the adolescent population (Bonnie & O’Connell, 2004; Newcomb & Bentler, 1988; National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2014). According to the 2013 Monitoring the Future survey, alcohol use “began a substantial decline in the 1980s” and has continued to decline, with 2013 findings indicating “the lowest levels for drunkenness and alcohol use in all three grades ever recorded by the survey” (National Institutes of Health, p. 8). Nevertheless, large numbers of the youth population report alcohol use. Specifically, of those surveyed, 15.9% of 8th graders, 28.8% of 10th graders, and 43.1% of 12th graders admitted to drinking in the preceding 30 days. Although only 8.4% of 8th graders reported having been “drunk,” the percentage rises substantially with the age of the youth, to 27.1% for 10th graders and 43.5% for 12th graders. The easy availability of alcohol is a contributor, with the majority of youth reporting that it was “easy” to “very easy” to obtain, with availability increasing with age, from 56.1% in 8th grade to 77.2% in 10th grade and 89.7% in 12th grade. Despite the continued decline in alcohol use, of particular concern are those in the older grades who engage in binge drinking (5-plus drinks in a row), which demonstrated a sharp increase by age: 5.1% of 8th graders, 13.7% of 10th graders, and 22.1% of 12th graders (National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2014).

The number of youth recognizing binge drinking as harmful has fluctuated little from 1991 to 2013, 56.6% to 51.8%. In the 2013 Monitoring the Future survey, 55.7% of 8th graders, 52.3% of 10th graders, and 45.8% of 12th graders indicated binge drinking was harmful. Fortunately, the percentage of youth disapproving of weekend binge drinking was considerably higher: 85.0% of 8th graders, 77.8% of 10th graders, and 71.6% of 12th graders. Data for daily binge drinking were available only for 12th graders, 90.6% of whom disapproved (National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2014).

According to Columbia University’s Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, the more than two-thirds of youth who start drinking before age 15 are 7.5 times more likely to use any illicit drug, more than 22 times more likely to use marijuana, and 50 times more likely to use cocaine than youths who never drank (CASA White Paper, 2004). Other studies show that alcohol use by adolescents can result in (possibly permanent) brain damage and can impair intellectual development (NIAAA, 2006). Alcohol increases risk-taking behavior. For example, in the Youth Risk Behavior Survey 2013, 21.9% of youth reported that they had ridden in a car in which the driver had been drinking, and 10.0% admitted to driving a vehicle after drinking alcohol (National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2014). Finally, alcohol plays key roles in accidents, homicides, and suicides, the leading causes of death among youth (AAP, 1998).


Suicide is the third leading cause of death for 12- to 18-year-olds (Jason Foundation, 2014) and the second leading cause for 15- to 24-year-olds; by contrast, it is the tenth leading cause of death for the U.S. population as a whole (National Center for Injury, Prevention and Control, 2014a). The suicide death rate for ages 12 to 18 was 5.3 per 100,000, accounting for 1,560 youth deaths. The rates increased by age group, with a rate of 9.65 by the age of 18. In every age group, the rates for males were substantially (2 to 4 times) higher than for females (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2012b). There are notable differences in the suicide rates among the various ethnic groups. Table 3 provides information regarding suicide prevalence among 15- to 19-year-olds by ethnic group and gender, in sequence from the highest to the lowest rate.

Table 3 Suicide Rates by Gender and Ethnic Group (Age 15–19), 2012






American Indian/AN





White, non-Hispanic










African American





Asian/Pacific Islander






American Indian/AN





White, non-Hispanic





Asian/Pacific Islander










African American





National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, 2014a

According to the findings of the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance 2013, in the preceding year 8.0% of youth attempted suicide, with attempts more frequent among females (10.6%) than males (5.4%). The percentages were notably higher among Hispanic/Latino youth (11.3%) than African American (8.8%) and non-Hispanic White (6.3%) youth, with the highest percentage among Hispanic/Latino females (15.6%). Suicide attempts decreased by grade level, with 9th graders having the highest percentage (9.3%) and 12th graders the lowest (6.2%). The percentage of attempts demonstrated a small, nonsignificant increase from the 2011 percentage of 7.8%. Furthermore, 17.0% of the youth surveyed reported seriously considering suicide. The rate demonstrates a substantial decrease from the high rate of 29.0% in 1991 and a minimal increase from the 2011 rate of 15.8%. A higher percentage of females (22.4%) than males (11.6%) seriously considered suicide. The highest rate was among Hispanic/Latino females (26.0%). Hispanic/Latino youth (15.7%) had higher rates than African American (10.4%) and White (12.8%) youth. The highest percentage was among 11th graders (18.2%), followed by 9th (17.2%) and 10th (17.2%) graders, with a notably lower rate for 12th graders (14.9%) (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2014).

Victimization and Criminal Behavior

Adolescents have the highest rate of violent victimization (homicide, rape, robbery, and simple and aggravated assault) of all persons 12 years of age or older in the United States. An examination of violent victimization rates by age grouping from 1973 through 2005 found 12- to 24-year-olds to experience the highest rates across all years, with 16- to 19-year-olds exhibiting the highest rates for 23 of the 33 years. Twelve- to 15-year-olds followed in frequency of victimization (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2006, Table 2). In 2012, 12- to 17-year-olds had the highest violent victimization rate (48.4 per 1,000 persons) of all age groups, followed by 18- to 24-year-olds (41.0 per 1,000 persons) (Bureau of Justice Statistics, October 2012).

Ethnic and gender differences are particularly dramatic with regard to homicide. Both African American and Hispanic/Latino youth have homicide rates substantially higher than their non-Hispanic White cohorts, with particularly high rates for young African American males, for whom homicide is the most frequent cause of death (see Table 4). Note also that the rate for African American females, though much lower than for African American males, is still higher than the rates for both males and females in the non-Hispanic White youth population.

The rankings in Table 4 indicate that homicide is a major health issue for youth, in contrast to the U.S. population as a whole, for whom homicide does not even appear in the listing of the 15 highest-ranking causes of death (National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, 2014). Furthermore, homicide in youth most frequently involves the use of firearms. In 2012, 1,136 of the 1,327 homicide victims 13 to 19 years of age were killed with a firearm (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2012).

Youth were also perpetrators of violent crime. In 2011, the Violent Crime Index arrests per 100,000 population were 168.5 for ages 13–14, 309.5 for age 15, 395.4 for age 16, 458.9 for age 17, 526.2 for age 18, and 529.4 for age 19, the highest rate for all age groups (OJJDP Statistical Briefing Book, 2014). However, examining juvenile arrest records from 1980 to 2011 indicates that arrest rates for 10- to 17-year-olds have continued to decline since their peak of 8,228.3 per 100,000 persons in 1995 to an all-time low in 2011 of 4,367 per 100,000 persons (National Center for Juvenile Justice, 2014a). The most frequently cited offense for juveniles 10 and older in 2011 was “delinquency” (39.4 cases per 1,000 youth), followed by offenses against property (14.3) and persons (10.1), with the rate for male offenders (55.5) far outstripping that of female offenders (22.5), and Black juveniles substantially higher (80.6) than White youth (32.9) (National Center for Juvenile Justice, 2014b). Of the arrests in 2011, a total of 1,021, 900 cases of youth 13 years of age and older were handled by the juvenile courts (Sickmund, Sladky, & Kang, 2014).

Surveying behaviors that contribute to violence among youth nationwide, the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance survey for 2013 found that 17.9% (28.1% male; 7.9% female) of U.S. students reported carrying a weapon (knife, gun, club, etc.) in the past 30 days, with the highest rate among White males (33.4%), followed by Hispanic/Latino (23.8%) and African American (18.2%) males. The frequency was highest among 12th graders (18.3%) and decreased each preceding year to 17.5% in the 9th grade. The weapon was a gun for 5.5% of the students, with the highest rate for White males (10.7%), followed by African American (9.8%) and Hispanic/Latino (7.5%) males. Weapons were carried onto school property in the previous 30 days by 5.2% of the students, primarily males (7.6% versus 3.0% for females) and most frequently by White males (8.3%), followed by Hispanic/Latino (7.0%) and African American (5.3%) males (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2014, Table 11).

About a quarter of the youth (24.7%; 30.2% male, 19.2% female) of the students reported being involved in a physical fight one or more times in the preceding 12 months. The highest rates were among Black males (37.5%), followed by Hispanic/Latino males (34.2%) and non-Hispanic White (27.1%) males. Ninth graders fought most frequently (28.3%), with the frequency diminishing each year to 18.8% by 12th grade. Physical fights resulted in 3.1% (3.8% male, 2.4% female) of students seeking medical attention from a doctor or nurse for injuries, with Hispanic/Latino (4.7%) and African American (4.4%) males seeking care most often. It is interesting that the percentages for African American (4.1%) and Hispanic/Latino (3.6%) females were higher than those for non-Hispanic White males (2.7%) as well as non-Hispanic White females (1.5%) (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2014, Table 13).

Finally, fear of victimization led to 8.1% of the students not attending school in the previous 30 days. The concern was highest among African American males (14.5%), followed by Hispanic/Latino males (12.1%), African American females (11.2%), and non-Hispanic White males (8.9%). The percentages for Hispanic/Latino females (6.7%) and especially White females (3.8%) were notably lower. The pattern by grade remained the same as for all other factors discussed above, with the highest percentage (8.6%) among 9th grade students, declining each year to a low of 2.6% by 12th grade (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2014, Table 15).

Table 4 Homicide Percentages and Rates by Race/Ethnicity and Gender (Age 15–19) 2010




African American (non-Hispanic Black)


























non-Hispanic White













*percentage of deaths in that age group caused by homicide.

**per 1,000,000.

***rank order of causes of death for that age group.

Center for Disease Control and Prevention, National Vital Statistics System, 2012c.

Texting while Driving

A new area of risk behavior that has been investigated more recently is the frequency of youth texting or e-mailing while driving. According to the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control (2014b), 2,650 adolescents ages 16 to 19 died in traffic accidents and 292,000 needed treatment at an emergency room. Data from a new study by researchers at Cohen Children’s Medical Center now indicates that texting while driving is the major cause of death for adolescents, surpassing the risks posed by drinking and driving for this age group (American Council on Science and Health, 2013).

The Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance 2013 reports that of the 64.7% of youth drivers, 41.4% indicated they had texted or e-mailed while driving at least one day during the thirty days prior to the survey. Texting while driving was highest among non-Hispanic White youth (45.8%) followed by Hispanic/Latino (36.0%) and African American (29.1%) adolescents. Interestingly, non-Hispanic White females (46.7%) had a slightly higher prevalence than non-Hispanic White males (45.1%), while Hispanic/Latino (39.5%) and African American (31.5%) males had higher percentages than their female cohorts (32.1% and 26.5%, respectively). The incidence of texting while driving increased by grade, with the highest percentage among 12th graders (60.3%), 61.0% among 12th grade males (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2014).


It is important to recognize that the issues and problems of adolescent populations discussed in the previous sections often do not exist in isolation, but interact with and exacerbate one another. For example, depression, hopelessness, mental health disorders, and substance abuse have been found to be significant risk factors for or correlates of adolescent suicide attempts and completion (National Center for Injury Prevention, 2014; Nock et al., 2013; Connor & Goldston, 2007; Goldston, Reboussin, & Daniel, 2006; Fleischmann, Beautrais, Bertolote, & Belfer, 2005; Galail, Sussman, Newcomb, & Locke, 2002; Kelly, Cornelius, & Lynch, 2002; Goldston et al., 2001; Kelly, Lynch, Donovan, & Clark, 2001; Shaffer et al., 1996; Withers & Kaplan, 1987; Schreiber & Johnson, 1986; Kandel & Daves, 1982). Substance abuse has also been identified as co-occurring with delinquent behavior (Marshall, 2014; Tubman, Gil, & Wagner, 2004; Jessor, 1998, 1985; Ellickson, Saner, & McGuigan, 1997; Christoffel, Sagerman, & Bennett, 1988). Low SES and poverty have been identified as risk factors for dropping out of school, particularly when linked with a complex of additional familial risk factors (Suh, Suh, & Houston, 2007; Ozawa, Joo, & Kim, 2004; Weis, Farrar, & Petrie, 1989).

To address the needs of adolescent populations, social work practitioners and policymakers need to recognize the complexity of the contributing factors and take a multipronged approach. Furthermore, they must overlay their analyses of needs and problems with a keen recognition of developmental processes and how developmental factors interact with environmental and cultural factors to alter or exacerbate the issues they are addressing. The social worker must take these multiple factors into account, along with individual differences and the impact of structural factors such as individual and group social status and income (especially poverty), in serving adolescent clients and their families, and must recognize how these multiple factors affect the client-worker relationship, the obtaining of an accurate assessment, and the planning and evaluation of appropriate interventions. Fortunately, more recent literature has begun to provide information and guidance with regard to diverse adolescent populations (See, for example, Canino, 2000; Gibbs, Huang, & Associates, 2003; Ho, 1992; Organista, 2007).


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