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Teens answer survey questions on weight control inconsistently but answer reliably about other risk behaviors

Research Activities, October 2009

Federal, State, and local governments often rely on the results of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's 97-question Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) to determine what policies will most benefit teens and tweens. Teens reliably answered questions about their sex, drug, alcohol, and tobacco histories when the YRBS was given twice in 2-week intervals in 2000. Yet they were not as predictable when responding to questions about their weight control behaviors, according to a researcher from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. For example, teens changed their answers to questions that addressed whether they participated in physical education weekly, tried to lose weight, considered themselves to be overweight, dieted, took diet pills, or vomited to lose weight.

The author suggests that the consistency of survey responses is tied to personal identity. For example, a teen who took a virginity pledge after having been sexually active may be likely to retract an earlier admission of sexual activity. Because teens took the survey twice in 2 weeks, they were unlikely to have changed their sense of personal identity, so their answers were mostly consistent. However, this study does suggest that teens change their weight control behaviors more frequently than their other risk behaviors.

The author recommends the survey reword its questions about weight control to phrase them in specific time periods. Because teen obesity is a pressing public health topic, she cautions policymakers to be aware of teens' inconsistency in reporting weight control information in the YRBS when using this data to craft policy. This study was funded in part by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (T32 HS00060).

See "Truth or consequences: The intertemporal consistency of adolescent self-report on the Youth Risk Behavior Survey," by Janet E. Rosenbaum, Ph.D., in the June 1, 2009 American Journal of Epidemiology 169(11), pp. 1388-1397.

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Page last reviewed October 2009
Internet Citation: Teens answer survey questions on weight control inconsistently but answer reliably about other risk behaviors: Research Activities, October 2009. October 2009. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, Rockville, MD.