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Changing gender roles in youth risk behavior

Rising rates of female youth risk behavior are nothing new. But data being released by the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE) at Susquehanna University and SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions) may be: girls and young women have caught up to – and in some cases passed – their male peers.

For example, among sixteen-year-olds, girls outpaced boys in reporting alcohol use (26 percent vs. 20 percent). By age seventeen, girls also pull ahead of boys on other drug use (13 percent vs. 7 percent) and by age nineteen in each of the areas studied:

• drinking (52 percent vs. 40 percent);

• using other drugs (19 percent vs. 15 percent); and

• driving under the influence (10 percent vs. 7 percent)

Perhaps not surprisingly, similar disparities exist for intimate sexual behavior and intercourse.

A recent Time magazine article, Chug! Chug! Chug! Why More Women Are Binge Drinking, cites data from the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in concluding that “it’s not unusual for young women ages 18 to 34, as well as high schoolers, to overindulge.” And on a local level, the Florence (SC) County Coalition for Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Prevention released statistics showing for the first time a higher percentage of teen girls reporting alcohol use than teen boys.

While the 2007 Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Prevent and Reduce Underage Drinking reported underage males using more alcohol during the month preceding the survey than underage females and boys drinking earlier and more heavily than girls, other data suggest that the trend lines of change began the better part of a decade ago. In July of 2004 an article in The Christian Science Monitor, The new face of underage drinking: teenage girls, stated that girls, not boys, accounted for the majority of youth alcohol use.

Why the sea changes?

Experts point to three primary factors that they believe are contributing to more risk taking by girls:

1. A push for gender equality which may be ratcheting up the pressure for girls to compete with boys on multiple fronts, including academic, athletic, and social;

2. Ineffective prevention models developed with males in mind, thus missing the point that girls and young women use alcohol and other drugs for different reasons than do boys and young men;

3. Marketing campaigns, particularly by alcohol companies, which target females.

Those problems suggest some obvious solutions, perhaps the most notable one being that, when it comes to prevention, “equal” need not mean “the same.”

Regardless of the etiology or onset of changes in risk behavior, it is clear that girls and young women suffer similar fallout to boys and young men, including dependency, disease and death.

A decade ago, Joseph A. Califano, Jr., chairman and president of The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, issued a clarion call, warning, “The time has come for parents, schools, physicians, clergy and the entire public health community to recognize the different motivations and vulnerabilities of girls and young women.”

The gender flip in youth risk behavior sadly suggests that time has come and gone.

Stephen Wallace, an associate research professor and director of the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE) at Susquehanna University, has broad experience as a school psychologist and adolescent/family counselor. He is also a senior advisor to SADD.

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