Summit County teenagers are drinking less alcohol and not using marijuana as much as they were five years ago.
But they are vaping — a lot.
And high school students are having more unprotected sex.
Those findings and more — both troubling and uplifting — are highlighted in the new Summit County Youth Risk Behavior Survey. About 18,000 local middle school and high school students completed the survey this school year, answering questions on topics ranging from bullying to sex to suicide to illegal drugs to video games.
Health and community leaders have released preliminary findings, identifying negative and positive trends from the last time the survey was given. The full report will be released in September.
Health officials use the results to help direct funding and programs. The survey is a collaboration between Summit County Public Health and Summit County Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health. It was conducted by the Prevention Research Center at Case Western Reserve University.
"Some of the concern ... for us is that it appears as though overall risk behaviors are happening earlier and earlier in a child's life," Summit County Health Commissioner Donna Skoda said. "If you wait until your child is 10 years old to talk about sex, drugs or anything else that could be seen as a risk factor, you've waited too long."
Dan Rambler, director of student support services and security for Akron Public Schools, agreed, saying educators are seeing discipline problems and riskier behaviors in younger students nowadays. The district has shifted more of its prevention programming to elementary schools to address that trend, he said.
"The trend has been moving downward to fourth and fifth grade," he said.
Officials also are worried that more kids are saying they don't have a trusted adult besides their parents in their life, especially because those adults talk to their children about sex and substance abuse. The percentage of those with a trusted adult dropped from 81% to 78%.
One of the most concerning trends involves vaping and e-cigarettes.
"Traditional cigarettes are no longer cool, but the vaping equipment is very, very, very popular with kids," Skoda said.
Among high school students, 42.3% of respondents said they had used e-cigarettes. Meanwhile, 16.3% of middle school students used them. Vaping wasn't an issue when the survey was first given in the 2013-14 school year so the question wasn't asked before.
The high response caught the attention of local health officials who have been pushing communities to adopt laws prohibiting businesses from selling tobacco and vaping products to anyone under age 21. The effort is known as Tobacco 21.
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine also is pushing to raise the age from 18 to 21 to purchase tobacco and vaping products statewide.
Two 18-year-old high school students who took the survey agreed that vaping is a problem among their peers. The Beacon Journal/Ohio.com sat down with the students — a boy and a girl — to talk about the results and agreed not to use their names or school district.
"It's become a problem with a lot of kids I see," the male student said. "It's almost easy to get ahold of."
E-cigarettes offer different flavors, including various fruits, and that's part of the allure for teens who view vaping as a recreational activity, the female student said.
They both expect the problem will get worse.
Parents' attitudes are changing when it comes to their kids using marijuana — or at least the students think their parents' attitudes are changing.
In the 2013-14 survey, 74.3% of high school students said their parents think it's very wrong for them to use marijuana. That plummeted to 53% this time.
Middle school students feel the same way, with 62.2% saying their parents feel it's wrong now while 89% felt that way in the previous survey.
Since the 2013 survey, Ohio legalized medical marijuana.
"People see benefits of it," the 18-year-old female student said, noting that there isn't as much of a negative connotation to marijuana as in the past.
"My parents don't like it, but from what I've heard and seen, parents are more lenient," the 18-year-old male student added. "I think it does [relate] to being legalized in more areas around the country."
Skoda said the trend is understandable.
"That's what happens when you legalize drugs," she said.
Suicide attempts among high school students dropped from 10.4% to 8.4%. Fewer middle school students also reported attempting suicide.
"But some of the behaviors and experiences that go into it were unchanged," said Rich Marountas, chief epidemiologist for Summit County Public Health. "It was almost that people are stepping back from going all the way through. Bullying, self-harm and suicidal thoughts were all unchanged. They were still worryingly high."
High school students are having less sex — 35.7% reported ever having sexual intercourse compared to 42 percent before — but they also aren't using condoms as much.
Among those sexually active, 53.3% reported using a condom most or all the time, down more than 5 percent from the previous survey.
Meanwhile, 6.4% of middle school students said they have had sexual intercourse, up from 2.5%. The good news is that condom use increased from 16.7% to 46.3%.
Alcohol use is declining.
Among high school students, 45.7% reported having ever had alcohol, down from 57% percent. Middle school students also reported a decline from 23.4% to 15.6%.
Fewer students also reported having alcohol within the last 30 days or drinking before age 11.
That drop surprised both high school students interviewed for this story, who both felt drinking hasn't declined.
"I'm shocked that it went down," the female student said. "It should be stagnant."
TV, computer use
Students are spending less time watching television, but officials saw a big jump in students spending three or more hours a day on computers or playing video games.
Among high school students, 49.7% said they were spending at least three hours on the computer or playing video games compared to 39.8% in the previous survey. There also was a jump from 40.6% to 49.6% among middle school students.
Marountas said officials believe television use has gone down because students are using their phones more for games.
More high school students reported seeing someone within the past 12 months for a mental health issue.
That didn't surprise the two high school students who both said teens feel stressed nowadays — whether it's stress about grades or athletics or just keeping up with what they see on social media.
"I feel the mental health of students has gotten shakier as a whole," the male student said. "I feel that kids are real stressed out. They worry about a lot. They worry about their self-image."
But both students also reported that they see more support available for students, saying educators and their peers are more aware about depression and more willing to help those they see struggling.
Rambler, the Akron Public Schools director, agreed.
"Kids and adults are better at realizing when there are those concerns and not just staying quiet," he said.
Rick Armon can be reached at 330-996-3569 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @armonrickABJ.