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B.C. adolescents having less sex and using fewer drugs, health survey finds

Those who are using drugs are more likely to have first tried them at a younger age, however
The 2023 B.C. Adolescent Health Survey was released on Feb. 21, 2024. (Pixabay)

Young people in B.C. today are less likely to have had sex or used drugs than youth in previous years, a new provincial survey shows.

The 2023 B.C. Adolescent Health Survey was released on Wednesday (Feb. 21), highlighting how the experiences of British Columbians aged 12 to 19 have changed since the previous survey was completed in 2018 and since the project began in 1992.

One of the major differences it noted was in the number of adolescents having sex at a young age.

In 2023, 16 per cent of the 38,488 youth who responded said they had engaged in sex, not including oral sex or masturbation. That’s a significant drop from 20 per cent of youth in 2018 and 30 per cent in 1992.

The most common age for youth to have had sex for the first time was 15 or 16, the same as was recorded in 2018.

Those who reported having penetrative sex said they used a variety of contraception methods. Most (53 per cent) said they had used a condom or other barrier the last time they had sex, 39 per cent said they used the withdrawal method and 31 per cent said they used birth control. Of those who went with withdrawal, 11 per cent said that was the only method they ever used.

One per cent of youth reported having a sexually transmitted infection and another one per cent said they had been pregnant or got someone pregnant.

Not all sex was consensual. Seven per cent of adolescents reported being forced into sexual activity by another youth and two per cent reported being forced into it by an adult. These numbers were highest for non-binary youth, followed by females and then males.

Sexual harassment was also a concern. The survey found 40 per cent of youth had experienced verbal sexual harassment in the last year and 25 per cent had experienced physical sexual harassment.

Eight per cent of youth said they had experienced physical violence in a romantic relationship, the highest rate in 20 years.

For the first time, the survey also asked youth about their experience with sex education in schools. Most respondents (80 per cent) said they receive sex education and half said it was helpful. The majority felt it was relevant to their gender identity (84 per cent), sexual orientation (79 per cent) and any disability or health condition they have (58 per cent). Most youth also felt the education was respectful of their culture and religion.

READ ALSO: Sex? Sexual intercourse? Neither? Teens weigh in on evolving definitions - and habits

As with sex, the survey found drug use was also down in 2023.

Just 15 per cent of youth said they had ever smoked tobacco, down from 18 per cent in 2018 and 67 per cent in 1992, when the survey first ran. Alcohol consumption also dropped from 60 per cent of youth who said they had tried it in 1992 and 44 per cent in 2018 to 38 per cent last year.

Cannabis use was similarly down, from 41 per cent of youth having tried it in 1998 – the first year this was polled – and 25 per cent in 2018 to 22 per cent in 2023.

The average age adolescents tried each substance for the first time was 14 or 15. But, the survey found a small per cent of youth were trying tobacco, cannabis and alcohol before the age of 12. In fact, although the number of youth using substances was down, the survey noted an increase in the rate of adolescents reporting having tried a drug at a young age.

There was a four per cent increase between 2018 and 2023 in the number of youth who tried smoking before age 12, a five per cent increase in those who drank alcohol and a one per cent increase in those who tried cannabis.

Last year was the first time the survey asked youth if they had ever vaped before. It found 26 per cent had and, of them, the most popular age to first try it was 13. Among those who do vape, 45 per cent said they have their first vape within five minutes of waking up.

READ ALSO: B.C. to smoke out ‘irresponsible marketing’ for vaping, social media: Eby

A small per cent of youth also reported using other drugs. Six per cent said they had tried mushrooms, another six per cent said they had taken more of their own prescription drugs than advised and four per cent said they had taken prescription drugs that they weren’t prescribed.

Two per cent reported taking a hallucinogenic, inhalant, benzodiazepines, cocaine or ecstasy. A further one per cent said they had used heroin, fentanyl, amphetamines, crystal meth or ketamine.

Of those who did try substances, 61 per cent said they did it for fun, 32 per cent said they wanted to experiment and 30 per cent said they did it because their friends were. Forty per cent reported stress or sadness as their reason, five per cent said they had an addiction and three per cent said they felt pressured into it.

The B.C. Adolescent Health Survey is conducted every five years. The 2023 responses were collected between February and June of last year, from students in 59 of B.C.’s 60 school districts.

READ ALSO: B.C.’s top doctor concerned about substance use among children, youth

About the Author: Jane Skrypnek

I'm a provincial reporter for Black Press Media after starting as a community reporter in Greater Victoria.
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