Teens Improve on Most Risky Behaviors, but 1 in 3 Text While Driving: CDC

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Despite constant fears that each generation of teens behaves more dangerously than the last, a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests that overall, the kids are all right — at least compared with their older siblings and parents’ generations.

The 2011 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey, released on Thursday, finds dramatic declines in risky behaviors, including thoughts of suicide and binge drinking, over the last two decades. However, new risk behaviors, such as texting while driving, have risen.

(MORE: Distracted Teen Driving: The Hazards of Having Friends in the Car)

The survey, which has been conducted every other year since 1991, includes data on 15,000 high school students. First, the good news:

—Drinking before driving by youth fell from 17% in 1997 to just 8% last year, and the percentage of teens who rode in a car driven by someone who drank fell from 40% to 24% over the last 20 years

—The percentage of youth who rarely or never wear seatbelts is down from 26% two decades ago to 8% last year

—Smoking is down dramatically: in 1991, 70% of youth reported ever trying a cigarette, while in 2011, just 45% did

—Even binge drinking has declined — last year 22% of high-schoolers reported binging (having five or more drinks within several hours) at least once in the previous month, compared with 31% in 1991

—The percentage of youth reporting having four or more sexual partners fell, going from 19% in 1991 to 15% in 2011

(MORE: More Deadly Crashes after Dark Linked to Teen Cell Use)

“This shows that we’re making great progress in helping our nation’s youth,” said Howell Wechsler, director of the CDC’s Division of Adolescent and School Health, in a teleconference announcing the results.

However, for the first time ever in this survey, more kids reported past-month marijuana smoking than cigarette smoking: 23% to 18%. Marijuana use rose slightly between 2009 and 2011, going from 21% of high-school kids to 23%.

Perhaps more worrying is another statistic reported for the first time in the survey: 1 in 3 teen drivers reports having texted or emailed while driving at least once in the previous month. “Texting or emailing while driving can have deadly consequences that are entirely preventable,” Wechsler said, noting that because of inexperience, teen drivers have the highest rate of distraction-related crashes.

(MORE: Why Teens Sunbathe More, Use Sunscreen Less)

Although auto deaths among teens have fallen by a stunning 44% since 1991, car accidents still remain the number one cause of death in this age group, accounting for 3,115 deaths in 2010, the latest year for which statistics are available.

Maia Szalavitz is a health writer at TIME.com. Find her on Twitter at @maiasz. You can also continue the discussion on TIME Healthland’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIMEHealthland.

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