Doctors Follow The Nose (Ring) to Learn More About Youth Risks

June 18, 2003

            Teenagers who sport body piercings are more likely to take part in several risky behaviors than their unskewered counterparts, according to research presented this weekend at the annual conference of the Pediatric Academic Societies in Baltimore.

            But the link with risky behaviors such as smoking and becoming sexually active at a young age is weaker than the link between tattoos and such actions, say the researchers from the University of Rochester Medical Center, who reported on a similar study of tattooed teens last year.

            The results presented by pediatrician Timothy Roberts, M.D., show that pierced girls in particular are more likely to engage in risky behaviors than their counterparts who have no body piercings. The team from the university’s children’s hospital, Golisano Children’s Hospital at Strong, found that girls with body piercings – piercings in body areas other than the ears – are more than twice as likely as other girls to smoke, to skip school, or to have had sex.

            Pierced girls were also three times as likely to hang out with friends who use drugs or alcohol, and they were more likely to be involved in activities like shoplifting and graffiti. The team found no link between piercings in girls and poor grades, drug or alcohol use, or violent behavior.

            “Piercing is one way that teenagers paint a picture of how they choose to present themselves to the world,” says Roberts. “You can use that image to tailor services to them. Use the piercing to open up a dialog.

            “When doctors see a teenager who has a piercing, they should ask whether they smoke, ask about their friends, and maybe spend a little more time asking about their sexual behavior. Seeing a pierced body part should help a doctor decide how to spend his or her time with the patient.

            “The doctor should also ask where they got the piercing done. Was it safe and sanitary, or is the adolescent at high risk for infection?” asks Roberts, who was joined in the research by Peggy Auinger and Sheryl Ryan, M.D., assistant professor of pediatrics.

            To do the study, Roberts and his colleagues analyzed information from a national sample of 4,595 adolescents done in 1996. People in the study were in junior high or high school; all were ages 12 to 21, with the majority 14 to 16 years old, from a variety of backgrounds.

            The researchers found that girls were more than four times as likely as boys to have a body piercing, 1.7 percent of boys compared to 7.1 percent of girls. Because of the smaller number of boys, researchers weren’t able to determine if the same risk findings hold true for boys, though it appears that boys with piercings are more likely to have a drinking problem and to miss school than their counterparts without piercings.

            Overall about 4.4 percent of students had body piercings, about the same percentage as had tattoos in a similar study released last year. Teens living with one instead of two parents were nearly twice as likely to get a body piercing.

            While it’s clear that a teenager’s nose ring or pieced tongue or belly button serves as a stark sign that an adolescent is more at risk than other teens for certain behaviors, a piercing is less a marker of risky behaviors than a tattoo, says Roberts. In last year’s study the team showed a stronger link between tattoos and several high-risk behaviors, including joining gangs, getting into fights, receiving poor grades at school, going on drinking binges, in addition to smoking cigarettes and having premarital sex.

            Roberts notes that the findings from both studies, which were funded by the federal Maternal and Child Health Bureau, apply to junior-high and high-school students, not necessarily to other people of the same age.

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