A Decline in Propensity Toward Risk Behaviors Among U.S. Adolescents

Jacob T. Borodovsky, Robert F. Krueger, Arpana Agrawal, Richard A. Grucza

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

11 Scopus citations


Purpose: Over the past two decades, substance use, delinquent behaviors, and promiscuous sexual activity have declined substantially among U.S. adolescents. We aimed to determine the extent to which these trends represent declines in a general propensity to engage in risk behaviors (i.e., declines in a latent factor). Methods: We used Youth Risk Behavior Survey data (1999–2017) (n = 147,800) and examined trends in substance use (e.g., alcohol), delinquency (e.g., fighting), and sexual activity (e.g., number of partners). We conducted two types of analyses stratified by grade (9th/10th vs. 11th/12th) and sex: (1) estimation of year-specific prevalence of each behavior and modeled prevalence changes over time and (2) factor analysis and application of alignment methods to determine changes in the mean of the latent factor over time while correcting for measurement noninvariance. Results: A single factor explained 53% (girls 11th/12th grade) to 62% (boys 9th/10th grade) of the variance in risk behaviors. Average relative annual declines in the prevalence of each behavior—except for weapon carrying—ranged from 1% to 6%. The structure of the latent factor was mostly unchanged over time, with notable exceptions related to differential changes in prevalence for cigarette and cannabis use. Between 1999 and 2017, the mean of the latent factor declined by between .54 and .73 standard deviations. Conclusions: Results suggest that much of the decline in the prevalence of substance use, delinquent, and sexual behaviors among American youth from 1999 to 2017 reflect an approximately two-thirds standard deviation decline in the mean of a latent risk behavior factor.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)745-751
Number of pages7
JournalJournal of Adolescent Health
Issue number6
StatePublished - Dec 2019


  • Adolescent
  • Epidemiology
  • Juvenile delinquency
  • Multivariate modeling
  • Risk behavior
  • Sexual activity
  • Substance abuse


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