What teens do and don’t know about health, safety

Teenage girl with an attitude.

Teenagers sure say “I know!” a lot. I know — not just because I’m an Adolescent Medicine doctor, but because I am a mom.  Just this summer I got a good number of “I knows” from my very own teens to loving reminders like “don’t forget to use sunscreen,” “you need to drink more water in this heat,” “you need more sleep than you’re getting” and “don’t wait until the last minute to do your summer reading homework.” School may be out for the summer, but we need to help our teens learn more about these and other mental health, sexual health, nutrition and Internet safety issues — because, in reality, they often don’t know.

Teens do know that depression is not a part of normal adolescence, but they often don’t know that depression needs treatment. Almost half of high school students believe that depression can be controlled through willpower alone, according to a study of knowledge about depression and suicide. A third of students think that a person with depression always feels sad when, in fact, some depressed teens feel mainly irritable or angry. Depression affects over 10 percent of adolescents, and these gaps in knowledge may prevent them from getting the help that they need.  

Teens do know about condoms and emergency contraception (Plan B), but they often don’t know how to use them correctly. One study addressing condom use found that almost half do not know:

  • to leave space at the tip of a condom during use
  • that petroleum jelly causes condom breakage
  • that lambskin condoms do not protect against transmission of HIV, hepatitis B virus and herpes simplex virus

Another study revealed that while many teenagers know about Plan B, most do not know when to use it or how it works.  Try showing your teens an informational website like this to help them avoid becoming a statistic like this:

  • almost half of all sexually transmitted diseases occur in 15- to 24-year-olds
  • three in 10 teenage girls become pregnant before the age of 20 

Teens do know about the five different “food groups,” but they often don’t know how to read a food label.  One study looking at nutrition awareness and use of food labels in adolescents and found that more than 75 percent do not read the Nutrition Facts Label when deciding on what to buy. What’s in a food label?  Knowledge needed to combat the increasing trend in adolescent obesity from 5 percent in 1980 to over 20 percent in 2012.

Teens do know about social media, but they often don’t know about cyber-bullying. More than 25 percent of teens have been bullied repeatedly in text messages and almost half of teenagers have been bullied online. Of those teens who have been bullied online, two thirds report being harassed on Facebook and one third on Twitter. A study of middle and high school students found that few understand the potential risks and effects of their behavior on social media sites. Students also say that few of their parents are monitoring their Internet activity.

Do you know what teens are posting on Facebook?  Here’s a surprise quiz:

  • How many post a photo of themselves? (Answer: 9 out of 10)
  • How many post their real name? (Answer: 9 out of 10)
  • How many post their birth date? (Answer: 8 out of 10)
  • How many post the city where they live? (Answer: 7 out of 10)
  • How many post their schools’ name? (Answer: 7 out of 10)
  • How many post their relationship status? (Answer: 6 out of 10)

Take-home point: If you do not know the answers to all of these questions as they pertain to your own teenagers, then everyone may benefit from doing some summer “homework.” 


Have a question for the Healthy Kids panel? Ask it here. Read more from the Healthy Kids blog »