It’s not easy being a parent of teens these days. Previously rational children transform into moody, unreasonable creatures whose need to shock is only surpassed by their efforts to fit in.
Add a measure of impulsiveness and experimentalism, and it’s no wonder risky behavior skyrockets during these years. What a parent can do is to keep the lines of communication open, stay informed of the health dangers of some of the most common trends, and keep their fingers crossed.
Here’s a roundup of 10 troublesome trends, some old and some new, that your teen may be exposed to this school year:
1. Biting and cutting and sucking blood. Yes, as unbelievable as it sounds, there’s a vampire movement afoot thanks to the glamorous portrayal of teen vampires on the Twilight series and The Vampire Diaries and the popularity of HBO’s True Blood. Besides the serious bacterial dangers of human bites, it can be a mode of HIV transmission that’s not covered in most sex ed classes.
2. Circle lenses/decorative contact lenses. A look made popular by Lady Gaga and YouTube, circle lenses create a big doe-eyed appearance and have become popular among teenage girls. Illegal to sell without a prescription, but easily bought online, doctors are concerned about risks of blinding infections and damage to the cornea.
3. ADHD prescription drug abuse. The same drugs being used to treat attention deficit disorder are being freely shared by some teens on college campuses and high schools to give them an edge at preparing for exams. Not only is the stigma gone, but kids who have the prescriptions are the go-to favorites during finals. If your child uses ADHD drugs, warn him or her against sharing. If your child doesn’t, make it clear that these are serious medications with side effects, not study aids.
4. Tobacco escalation products. Many teens are convinced that, unlike cigarettes, smoking a hookah or using chewing tobacco is not harmful. In fact, hookahs do use tobacco (referred to as Massel) which comes in a wide variety of flavors—including apple, strawberry, and coconut—intended to create a “graduation strategy” so that kids get hooked by starting them with milder tasting, more flavored substances. This trick is also used with a product called “Snus”, a non-chew, no-spit oral tobacco that’s also available in variety of sweet and fruity flavors. Also increasingly popular with teens, using Snus lets them stay under the radar at school and still get their nicotine fix, because it’s stuffed between the lip and the gum. Make sure your teens know that these products have their own dangers, as well as leading to nicotine addiction.
5. Tanorexia/Tanning salons. Even though exposure to tanning beds before the age of 30 increases a person’s risk of developing melanoma by 75 percent, this real danger is dampened by television shows that depict it as trendy and fashionable. One study of university students found that more than 90 percent of tanning-bed users know about the risks of premature aging and skin cancer but continue to tan because they think it looks good.
6. Tattoos. Tattoos have become extremely popular among teens. Although most states have laws prohibiting minors from getting them, they are poorly enforced. Recent data suggest that more than one-third of adults in the U.S. under the age of 35 now sport at least one tattoo. Outbreaks of community-associated methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) skin infections among tattoo recipients have been related to sloppy infection control practices. And tattoos are estimated to account for more than twice as many hepatitis C infections as injection drug use. Other infections, including HIV, can also be contracted through tattooing. If your kids insist on tattoos, make sure that they go to a licensed practitioner.
7. Piercings. Besides traditional ear piercings which carry the standards risks of infection, allergic reactions to nickel, and scar formation, kids are piercing other parts of their bodies, including their nose, naval region, lips, eyebrows and tongues, as well as areas hidden from parents, such as the nipples and genitals. Bacterial infections are not uncommon as are risks of hepatitis, tuberculosis, HIV and tetanus. Deformity and scarring can be permanent. Make sure your kids are aware that needles wielded by anyone but a health professional or certified technician can be lethal weapons.
8. Tech use at night. Do you know what your kids are doing in their bedrooms at night? It’s likely they’re texting their friends, chatting on Facebook, or playing video games. The high-tech bedrooms of many teenagers, are anything but dark and quiet. They often go to sleep listening to their iPods, and exchange text messages late into the night. In fact, this seems to be typical teenage behavior. No wonder they’re tired in school. Encourage your child to make it a habit to completely unplug well before bedtime.
9. Texting while driving. There have been reports of teens getting into serious car accidents texting while driving because they keep their hands and eyes on their cell phone keys, rather than the steering wheel. The practice is widespread and getting worse. According to a 2010 survey by AAA and Seventeen Magazine, 86 percent of drivers, age 16-19 admit to risky driving habits, up 25% from a 2008 survey. And those who texted, sent, on average, 23 text messages while driving in the past month. Sixty percent of teens say they drive while talking on their cell phones, up nine percent from a 2008 survey. Make sure your teen drivers have headsets in the car so they can take needed calls and keep their hands on the wheel.
10. Noise exposure. According to published research, about 12.5 percent of American children between the age of 6 and 19 have measurable noise induced hearing loss in one or both ears. Exposure to harmful sounds can injure the delicate hair cells in the inner ear. We have a fixed number of cochlear hair cells and they don’t regenerate, so it’s important to prevent damage in the first place to reduce the need for a hearing aid later in life. To protect their hearing, they should turn down the volume from headsets, televisions and car radios, and set the top volume level on their MP3 player to a safe level.
Orly Avitzur is medical adviser at Consumer Reports and blogs at the Consumer Reports Health Blog.
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