In August, schools across North Carolina began administering the Youth Risk Behavior Survey. The YRBS is a survey, created by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 1990, that is administered every other year to students in middle and high school throughout the country. According to the CDC, the aim of the survey is “… to monitor health behaviors that contribute markedly to the leading causes of death, disability, and social problems among youth and adults in the United States….In addition, the YRBS monitors the prevalence of obesity and asthma and other health-related behaviors plus sexual identity and sex of sexual contacts.”
If that raises red flags for you, you’re not alone. Both in North Carolina and across the country, the survey has been attracting criticism, and for good reason. This is not an innocent survey full of innocuous questions about diet and exercise, although it does contain those questions. No, this survey goes much further. Consider these questions, lifted straight from the survey, which is available to review online.
- Have you ever been physically forced to have sexual intercourse when you did not want to?
- During the past 30 days, on how many days did you have 4 or more drinks of alcohol in a row, that is, within a couple of hours (if you are female) or 5 or more drinks of alcohol in a row, that is, within a couple of hours (if you are male)?
- How old were you when you had sexual intercourse for the first time?
- I have never had sexual intercourse
- 11 years old or younger
- 12 years old
- 13 years old
- 14 years old
- 15 years old
- 16 years old
- 17 years old or older
- During the past 3 months, with how many people did you have sexual intercourse?
- I have never had sexual intercourse
- I have had sexual intercourse, but not during the past 3 months
- 1 person
- 2 people
- 3 people
- 4 people
- 5 people
- 6 or more people
- The last time you had sexual intercourse with an opposite-sex partner, what one method did you or your partner use to prevent pregnancy? (Select only one response.)
- I have never had sexual intercourse with an opposite-sex partner
- No method was used to prevent pregnancy
- Birth control pills (Do not count emergency contraception such as Plan B or the "morning after" pill.)
- An IUD (such as Mirena or ParaGard) or implant (such as Implanon or Nexplanon)
- A shot (such as Depo-Provera), patch (such as Ortho Evra), or birth control ring (such as NuvaRing)
- Withdrawal or some other method
- Not sure
- During your life, with whom have you had sexual contact?
- I have never had sexual contact
- Females and males
- Which of the following best describes you?
- Heterosexual (straight)
- Gay or lesbian
- I describe my sexual identity some other way
- I am not sure about my sexual identity (questioning)
- I do not know what this question is asking
There are also numerous questions about illegal drug use, including how frequently children have used cocaine, heroin, methamphetamines, and ecstasy. There are questions about marijuana, artificial marijuana, and vaping. There are questions about how often children have felt suicidal and attempted suicide. The questions go on for more than 20 pages.
It seems to me that there are several very serious problems with this survey.
First, many of these questions are asking about criminal assault of some sort. Being forced to have sex when you don’t want to is called rape, and it’s illegal. Many of the behaviors described in the survey amount to sexual abuse of children when they happen to kids who are under the age of consent, which most of the children participating in this survey will be. But this survey doesn’t call any of this behavior what it is, offers no moral judgement about it at all, and provides no resources for a child who has suffered this sort of abuse. That is irresponsible at best. Sadly, there are children who have experienced these things, and they need a lot of support and care. I fear that a survey of this nature communicates to abused, vulnerable children that rape and sexual abuse is somehow similar in seriousness to the other things this survey asks about, like riding in a car without a seatbelt and drinking too much soda.
Secondly, this survey asks about a lot of behaviors that are very serious health concerns. Conversations about drug use, sexual activity, severe bullying, and suicide need to be happening with parents and doctors. Indeed, they do happen during normal well child check-ups, and that is a more appropriate context. Pediatricians are able to discuss those behaviors with kids, report abuse where it’s suspected, and offer guidance to children and parents. They’re also able to intervene where they suspect that kids may be at real risk of suicide.
Thirdly, this survey could be seen as a normalization of behaviors that should not be normalized. It is not normal for 12-year-olds to have multiple sexual partners, be forced to engage in unwanted sexual behavior, binge drink, use heroin, and attempt suicide. As adults, we know this. But kids process things differently. They’re young and impressionable. Of course, we need to have age-appropriate conversations with our children about all of these things, but presenting them with a survey that doesn’t contextualize any of it runs a very real risk of leading children to believe that these are just normal things that people experience. That is dangerous!
Finally, I think there’s a very real risk to the most vulnerable children. As a foster parent, I have loved and cared for children who have been physically and sexually abused, who have contemplated and attempted suicide, who have been severely depressed, and who have been overly sexualized at a young age. All of that is tragic, and it requires diligent, careful navigation on the part of parents, doctors, counselors, and teachers. When I read this survey, I imagine how it would be received by the children I’ve loved the most, who have experienced extremely difficult things, and with whom I have worked hard to bring about healing. For kids like those, these sorts of surveys could stir up past trauma, trivialize their abuse, and make it more difficult to work through their challenging issues. Out of care for the most vulnerable kids, we should be careful about how these sorts of questions are presented to children in schools.
So drop the survey. If you’re a parent and your child hasn’t already taken it, you can opt out. Whole schools can opt out, so talk with your child’s school about not participating. And talk with your kids. The behaviors and feelings that this survey explores are very real, but they are far too important to be left to an impersonal, uncontextualized, government-directed school survey.
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