First-of-its-kind survey sheds light on teen behaviors in Allegheny County

Every parent looks at their teen at some point and wonders, “What’s happening in your world?”

For the first time, investigators at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC, the Allegheny County Health Department and the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health have attempted to answer this question.

Results of the first Healthy Allegheny Teen Survey (HATS) were just released, with information on the health and behaviors of over 1,600 youth ages 14 to 19 in the county. Data was collected through an anonymous phone survey, based on the national Youth Risk Behavioral Surveillance System. Teens were confidentially asked about everything from physical activity and nutrition to substance use, mental health and sexual activity.

Allegheny County Health Department Director, Dr. Karen Hacker, is cautiously optimistic about the results. “Overall, our young people in general seem to be a bit better than the national average,” she says, referring to findings that local teens were less likely to have tried cigarettes, drank alcohol, considered suicide or had sexual intercourse than the national average.

But she also notes some of the more disturbing results. “Thirteen percent of young people reported somebody close to them had been murdered. There were issues around physical and emotional abuse and concerns about people driving in cars with folks who had been drinking.”

Dr. Liz Miller, the principal investigator for the study, and the head of UPMC’s Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine Department at Children’s Hospital, also mentions the low condom use among adolescents.

“Forty percent of teens did not use a condom at last sex. This is a huge problem. Young people should not have unprotected sex,” she says. “We need to figure out what can we be doing to ensure that our young people are using birth control and condoms.”

The survey also reveals that almost 40% of surveyed teens texted while driving (motor vehicle accidents are a leading cause of mortality in this age group) and 35% had done some sort of self-harm. Almost 20% had been in a physical fight in the past year.

Both Miller and Hacker suggest caution when interpreting the survey results, noting the small sample size and the fact that certain high-risk groups, including incarcerated youth, likely did not participate. They also acknowledge that young people might be hesitant to answer sensitive questions, though elements of the study design–including waiver of parental consent requirements–were intended to facilitate truthfulness.

This study is the first coordinated, large-scale attempt to understand adolescent behavior in our region, and is designed to provide both a snapshot of the present state of affairs, as well as spark change for the future.

“Over 75% of adolescent morbidity and mortality is attributable to behaviors that place adolescents at risk for poor health,” says Miller. “My purpose for doing the survey was to have local data to drive local policies, programming and resources. There’s information in this survey that should be relevant to educators, law enforcement, parents and many other stakeholders.”

Click here to review the full study results and methodology.

Featured photo: Dr. Liz Miller, Photo by Brian Cohen