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Emerson Hospital surveys area students on risky behaviors

A survey of risky behaviors among students in nearly a dozen area school districts found that a large percentage of students face high academic stress, and cope by exercising and watching television.

The latest Emerson Hospital Youth Risk Behavior Survey, administered last spring to 10,580 students in grades 6, 8, and 9 through 12, provides statistics about adolescent risk behavior patterns such as bullying, stress levels, cellphone usage while driving, sexual behavior, personal safety, violence, suicide, substance abuse, gambling, HIV/AIDS education, dietary habits, and physical activity.

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The survey results were released last month and recently posted on the hospital’s website.

Dr. Jessica Rubinstein, a pediatrician at Concord Hillside Medical Associates in Harvard and chief of pediatrics at Emerson Hospital in Concord, said stress, particularly from academic pressures, plays a major role in the lives of students, and can lead to risky behaviors. She noted that the topic was the focus of a 2009 documentary, “Race to Nowhere.’’

“It’s huge,’’ she said. “They tell me they are stressed all the time.’’

The survey has been conducted biannually for the past 14 years, and has been revised over time to reflect current topics such as stress, bullying and texting while driving.

“Emerson Hospital is pleased to support this important health initiative,” said Christine Schuster, Emerson Hospital’s president and CEO, in an announcement on the survey’s release. “We believe that by gathering data directly from within our communities, we help to create the most effective educational programs and classroom instruction to give parents and children the best community-based prevention and intervention initiatives possible.”

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The participating school systems are Acton, Boxborough, Acton-Boxborough Regional, Concord, Concord-Carlisle, Groton-Dunstable Regional, Harvard, Littleton, Maynard, Nashoba Regional, and Westford. Nashoba encompasses Bolton, Lancaster, and Stow.

This is the first year the students answered questions related to stress.

Among middle school respondents, 26 percent of sixth-graders and 42 percent of eighth-graders reported having experienced somewhat high or very high stress levels as a result of their academic workload during the previous 12 months.

Among high school respondents, 59 percent reported having experienced somewhat high or very high stress levels, peaking in grade 11 with 66 percent.

In nearly all grades and causes of stress, females reported higher stress levels than males. Common strategies for both genders and all age groups in dealing with stress included exercise, watching television, eating, and meditation or other relaxation activities.

However, 40 percent of sixth-graders and 37 percent of eighth-graders also chose “other’’ from among the options for dealing with stress, the report’s summary noted.

Rubinstein said she is pleased to see so many students turning to exercise or meditation, but pointed out that some resort to substance abuse.

“The most important thing is to realize that there are still kids who are going to have unsafe behaviors,’’ she said. “We have to be vigilant in recognizing that risky behaviors occur, and require help and support for these kids.’’

Lisa MacLean, a guidance counselor at Maynard High School, said the purpose of the survey is to help school officials identify trends and where resources should be targeted.

The survey was administered on a voluntary basis in March. The survey entailed 63 questions in Grade 6, 90 questions in Grade 8, and 112 questions for high school students.

The participating school districts have received the results that are specific to their student populations.

“We look for trends, and we use it to drive curriculum and staffing decisions,’’ MacLean said.

By analyzing the survey results, officials in Maynard have discovered that many risky behaviors don’t start in high school but spike in eighth grade, MacLean said, and as a result the school district has been able to target more resources to the middle school grades.

“We try to focus on prevention and not just intervention,’’ she said.

MacLean said she’s interested in analyzing the answers to stress-related questions because stress often leads to risky behaviors, such as alcohol and drug abuse and gambling.

“This is something we really need to know because so much behavior can come from stress,’’ MacLean said.

Other survey results show that the use of cellphones while driving had gone down from two years ago, a trend that Rubinstein attributes to legislation prohibiting the practice by drivers 18 years and under. However, she said, she was concerned that 42 percent of 11th-graders and 67 percent of 12th-graders still reported using their phones in the car, despite the law.

“These results clearly reveal the widespread use of cellphones, to both speak and text, by the least experienced drivers on the road continues,’’ Rubinstein said. “Adults who connect to teens need to reinforce the risks of distracted driving.”

In the survey’s section on bullying, 8 percent of all high school respondents reported having been repeatedly threatened or humiliated, or having experienced hostile behaviors in school during the previous 12 months.

In addition, 13 percent of sixth-grade respondents and 10 percent of the eighth-graders reported having been repeatedly bullied in school during the previous year.

The survey’s results on sexual behavior and comparative data reflected relatively little change in the percentage of students reporting that they ever had sexual intercourse.

A report on the 2012 survey’s findings, and comparisons with past results can be found at www.emersonhospital.org, under the Community Health Resources link.

Jennifer Fenn Lefferts can be reached at jflefferts@yahoo.com.

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