Delinquent Behavior Has Dropped Sharply Among U.S. Teens, Wash U Study Finds

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In the last decade, far fewer American teenagers drank, used drugs or smoked than in previous years, with a 49 percent decline in substance abuse disorders over a twelve-year span.

But while some experts may want to credit whatever anti-drug campaign kids have been shown, a new study from researchers at Washington University suggests that's not it.

The reason? The number of teens in the same cohort who steal, fight and sell drugs has also declined sharply, with a 34 percent decline in that twelve-year period.

That suggests to the researchers — whose lead author is Wash U professor of psychiatry Richard A. Grucza — that something much bigger is shaping behavior.



"We’ve known that teens overall are becoming less likely to engage in risky behaviors, and that’s good news,” Grucza said in a press release. “But what we learned in this study is that the declines in substance abuse are connected to declines in delinquency. This suggests the changes have been driven more by changes in adolescents themselves more than by policies to reduce substance abuse or delinquent behavior.”

The study, being published today by Psychological Medicine, looked at data gathered on more than 210,000 teens from 2003 to 2014.

"[S]eeing these trends across multiple behaviors suggests that larger environmental factors are at work," he says. "These might include reductions in childhood lead exposure, lower rates of child abuse and neglect, and better mental health care for children.”

Interestingly, Grucza's study notes, even while opioid use continues to rise among adults, among their offspring it too is in decline, with a drop of nearly 50 percent in the population of twelve to seventeen year olds.

Whatever the cause, the kids are alright. Perhaps they've learned from the mistakes being made by their parents?

We welcome tips and feedback. Email the author at sarah.fenske@riverfronttimes.com