Female students are faring the worst when it comes to risky behavior

The rates at which female students are reporting negative experiences "are stark," CDC says.

Several positive changes in student behavior over the last decade may be overshadowed by dangerous declines in safety and well-being, according to the CDC’s latest high school Youth Risk Behavior Survey.

And female high school students are faring worse than their male classmates. “Across almost all measures of substance use, experiences of violence, mental health, and suicidal thoughts and behaviors, female students are faring more poorly than male students,” say the authors of the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, which covers the years 2011 to 2021. “These differences, and the rates at which female students are reporting such negative experiences, are stark.”

Over that 10-year period that ended in the middle of the COVID pandemic, students reported decreased sexual activity and substance use at the same time researchers detected declines in the use of condoms. Fewer students also said they had ever abused illicit drugs, prescription drugs or alcohol while the number of youth who reported having been bullied also declined.

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But an increasing number of students are experiencing violence, mental illness and suicidal thoughts. Alarmingly, more female students have been victimized by sexual violence and rape while more youth overall skipped school because they feared for their own safety. Male students, meanwhile, struggled with an increase in electronic bullying.

More than 40% of high school students reported being too sad or hopeless to participate in their regular activities for up to two weeks. That finding lines up with a rise in the number of youths who seriously considered suicide, made a suicide plan, and attempted suicide.

Youth Risk Behavior Survey’s troubling disparities

Significant disparities based on race, gender and gender identity emerged in Youth Risk Behavior Survey. Over the last 10 years, for example, there has been a slow but steady increase in the number of female students who have suffered sexual violence or were forced to have sex.

Some 14% of females said they had been forced to have sex compared to 12% in 2011. While those who experienced sexual violence grew to 18% from 15%.

Also, more students of all genders and races missed class because they were afraid to go to school. However, there was a slight decline in the number of students who said they had been threatened with a weapon at school.

When it comes to substance abuse:

  • Rates of substance abuse were highest among female students, LGBQ+ students, and students with same-sex partners.
  • Nearly 30% of female students currently drank alcohol and nearly 20% currently used marijuana.
  • Approximately 20% of LGBTQ+ students had ever used select illicit drugs and 20% had ever misused prescription opioids.
  • Asian and Black students were less likely than students from nearly every other racial and ethnic group to have ever used select illicit drugs.
  • White students were more likely than Asian, Black, and Hispanic students to currently drink alcohol.
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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