This article appears in Family Magazine January 2018.

Finally, some good news: A new study finds that delinquent behavior among teens is down sharply in the last decade. Fewer teens are drinking alcohol, using drugs, smoking or taking part in other illicit behaviors including stealing or fighting.

The national survey by researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis analyzed data from more than 210,000 kids ages 12 to 17 from all 50 states between 2003 and 2014. It was sponsored by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration, an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The drop in substance abuse among teens parallels findings in other recent surveys, but until now no one has looked at how the drop-off may be linked to other behavioral issues.

“The real news of the study was the link between trends in substance use disorder and other delinquent behaviors such as fighting, theft, etc.,” said Richard Grucza, lead author and professor of psychiatry, Washington University School of Medicine. “Other studies have looked at trends in particular behaviors over time and noted declines, but our study looked at the data on an individual level.”

The study examined each individual’s risk for multiple outcomes and found that the decline in delinquent behavior could be explained on a “person level rather than by factors that influence specific behaviors. In other words, it’s not that we’re doing a better job at preventing smoking or drinking or fighting, etc., but that something is changing that is creating healthier, more resilient kids,” Grucza said.

Less risky behavior

Other researchers have found that teens are delaying sex and using seat belts more often than their parents and grandparents. Grucza’s team focused on substance-use disorders involving alcohol, nicotine, marijuana, opioids and other prescription or nonprescription drugs — and delinquent behaviors. The six behaviors studied were fighting, stealing, attacking a person with intent to injure, selling drugs, carrying a handgun and being involved in a group fight.

“This study is really good news, especially with the opioid crisis just announced as a public health emergency,” Grucza said.

The future can’t be predicted, but getting through adolescence without getting involved in drugs tends to protect against adult drug problems, he said.

“But one major caveat here is that some drugs are more dangerous than others. Even if this generation of teenagers grows up to be less vulnerable to opioid-use disorder, the drugs being used have shifted from pills to heroin to heroin mixed with fentanyl. Hopefully we’ll see a decrease in the number of users, but the reality is that those who become users are facing ever-greater risks of overdose,” he said.

The decline

Adolescent crime rates have been in decline since the early 1990s, and teen drug use has been gradually declining since the mid-’90s, Grucza said.

The study looked at three potential causes for the decline:

— A reduction in lead exposure, which is strongly connected to changes in brain function and, by correlation, crime rates.

— A drop in child abuse and neglect, strongly linked to a number of adverse mental health and behavioral consequences.

— More focus on treatment of childhood mental health issues such as ADHD or attention deficit disorder.

“There are probably other contributing factors, such as smaller family size and a long-term trend toward higher IQ rates, but these changes are slower, longer-term trends and probably don’t account for a sharp change over the course of 12 years,” Grucza said.