Lifestyle Risks in Teens

Teenagers are intent on experimenting, and sometimes this entails adopting lifestyle habits that seem attractive to them—either because adults who are role models embrace the habit, or because a teenager wants to be included in a particular group of peers. Also, some habits can produce pleasurable sensations without any apparent ill effects. But several lifestyle habits that appeal widely to adolescents are also bad for their health.

Substance Abuse and Teens

Substance abuse. The use of alcohol is widespread among teenagers: in the CDC survey cited above, half of those surveyed reported consuming alcohol in the previous 30 days. Nearly a third of the students—including 28 percent of the women—said that, during the same period, they had engaged in binge drinking (consuming more than five drinks on one occasion). A third of them also reported that they had first consumed alcohol (more than a few sips) before age 13.

The use of illicit drugs, after a temporary drop in the early 1990s, may be on the increase, according to the survey. About 47 percent of high school students reported that they had used marijuana—and more than 25 percent had used it recently one or more times. (In a 1990 survey, by contrast, only 31 percent reported ever having used marijuana.) About 4 percent of the respondents in the 1999 study reported using some form of cocaine; less than 2 percent reported cocaine use in 1991.

Of course, not all teenagers who experiment with alcohol or marijuana use these substances regularly or go on to experiment with harder drugs. But for those who do, drinking excessive amounts of alcohol and using illicit drugs can harm the cardiovascular and respiratory systems. These substances can also interfere with proper growth and development in adolescents, whose bodies are not completely mature.

In addition, even occasionally using alcohol or drugs can cause a teen to participate in activities that he or she might normally avoid, because these substances alter a person’s perception and judgment. Fights, accidents, and unplanned or unprotected sexual intercourse are more common among teenagers who drink alcohol or use drugs than those who don’t.

Sun Abuse and Teens

Sun abuse. A suntan may look healthy—but sun exposure is the leading cause of wrinkles. It also increases the risk of skin cancer. Teenagers should take the same precautions that adults do: don’t sunbathe for extended periods, and take steps—including the use of a sunscreen—to protect skin when in the sun.

Unhealthful Eating Patterns and Teens

Unhealthful eating patterns. As with adults, the key to healthy eating for adolescents is variety—of the sort suggested by the U.S. Department of Agriculture food pyramid. However, growing teens often need more calories than adults, especially if they are active in sports.

As a result, it is common for teenagers to snack, and indeed parents should encourage snacking. The problem is that adolescents, studies have shown, tend to eat a good deal of junk food—sweets or meals from fast-food restaurants that are high in fat and low in fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Parents can help by serving well-balanced meals at home and by stocking the kitchen with healthy snacks that include fruit, yogurt, low-fat chips, and unbuttered popcorn. It’s also important not to skip meals, since this can easily lead to snacking on junk foods.

Eating disorders. Some young women become focused on being as thin as fashion models—even though few adult women develop a model’s figure naturally. Watching your weight so as not to become overweight is fine. But be aware of how much you should realistically weigh.

Half of all white adolescent girls think they are overweight when, in fact, their weight is normal, according to a National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. (African-American children of both sexes and white boys were much less likely to have such misperceptions.)

In some cases, being thin becomes an obsession and leads to the eating disorders anorexia and bulimia. Combined, these conditions affect about 4 percent of adolescent and young women.

Anorexia is self-starvation to the point that a woman’s weight is at least 15 percent below average for her height. People with anorexia often simply stop eating, sometimes consuming as few as 100 calories a day. They tend to be obsessed with food composition and calorie counting and may consider only low-calorie foods, such as raw vegetables, acceptable to eat. They often deny feelings of hunger and fatigue and have an unrealistic image of their bodies, thinking they are fat when they are actually quite thin, even emaciated.

Bulimia is often called the “binge and purge” disease. People with this condition eat large amounts of food at one sitting, often very quickly and in secret, and then vomit or use laxatives to get rid of the extra calories. Others exercise obsessively to stay thin. The bingeing and purging is often accompanied by feelings of guilt and depression. This condition is more prevalent than anorexia among young women. (Bulimia also occurs more in men than anorexia does—though both are far less common in men than in women.)

In some cases these disorders develop because a young woman participates in an activity that values extreme thinness—gymnastics, ballet, or ice skating, for example. In other cases the eating disorder is a manifestation of underlying psychological issues, including low self-esteem, poor self-image, family problems, stress, or feelings of not being in control.

Signs of eating disorders include unusual weight loss; preoccupation with food; peculiar eating habits; and menstruation that ceases for three or more consecutive months. It is more difficult to spot someone with bulimia, compared to anorexia, since people with bulimia typically maintain a normal weight and tend to do their bingeing and purging in secret.

Both anorexia and bulimia have serious consequences and in extreme cases cause death. About 20 percent of people with anorexia die because of complications related to the disorder. The vomiting that occurs with bulimia can erode tooth enamel; cause electrolyte imbalances that can lead to kidney or heart abnormalities; or rupture the stomach or esophagus.

The disorders are also difficult to treat, often because the person denies that anything is wrong and hides the behavior from friends and family. Nutritional and psychological counseling are required. The earlier treatment is begun, the better the chances for recovery.

STDs, Birth Control and Teens

Contrary to what many adults may believe, the majority of adolescents who are sexually experienced use some method of contraception to protect themselves and their partners from unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). But for adolescents who do not use contraceptives, or don’t use them effectively or consistently, the consequences can be serious, especially for teenage girls.

Every year an estimated three million teenagers are infected with an STD, and between 900,000 and one million teenagers become pregnant—nearly all of them unintentionally. Older teenagers, African-Americans, and teenagers who are poor are more likely to get pregnant than those who are younger, white, and better off economically. Yet the rates of certain STDs—especially genital herpes—has increased dramatically among white teenagers in recent years.

Teenagers who are in a sexual relationship or intend to become sexually active should be aware of the different birth control options available. They should also take steps to protect themselves against STDs first and foremost by using latex condoms. (Nonlatex condoms do not provide protection against STDs.) Adolescent girls may be more likely to contract a sexually-related cervical infection than older women, since their cervixes have not undergone age-related developmental changes.

Physical Inactivity, Obesity and Teens

Nearly half of all American youths between 12 and 21 years old get no vigorous exercise on a regular basis. Engaging in physical activity drops dramatically with age—73 percent of ninth graders get some form of regular exercise, compared to only 61 percent of twelfth graders, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

One result of declining physical activity among young Americans, coupled with the consumption of high-fat fast foods, is that the percentage of adolescents who are overweight has nearly doubled during the past twenty years. Like adults, young people can benefit from a moderate amount of physical activity. And increasingly, it falls to families and friends to encourage this: many overweight children do not have access to comprehensive weight-loss programs, and participation in school physical education programs has dropped significantly during the past decade.

Publication Review By: the Editorial Staff at

Published: 21 Jun 2010

Last Modified: 28 Aug 2015