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Israel has seen an alarming rise in pregnancy, sexual violence, drug use and gambling among teens, according to a non-profit group's annual report submitted yesterday to President Shimon Peres.

The study, conducted by ELEM: Youth in Distress in Israel, was released as the group's Lights of Hope Flag initiative was launched at Tel Aviv's Azrieli Towers for the seventh-straight year.

The luminous Israeli flag, composed of 600,000 lights and "hanging" off one of Israel's largest towers, is intended to raise awareness about the problems faced by at-risk youth.

The public can help the effort by sending SMS messages to the group, ELEM's Web site states. Each shekel donated will light a single bulb, and the group hopes to light up the entire flag by the project's end on Independence Day.

The initiative comes as the group released a bleak portrait of rising teen pregnancy and associated problems. The study found that large segments of Israeli youth have dismissive attitudes toward contraceptives, with the rate of pregnancies among girls under 17 rising 15 percent last year. Of those, 90 percent chose to terminate the pregnancy.

In addition, over 70 percent of female youths treated by ELEM volunteers reported using the morning-after pill Postinor - four out of five of them regularly.

Sexual and other forms of violence also rose among teens in 2009 by 10 percent, and ELEM found that sexual violence and humiliation often take extreme forms on the Internet amid the accessibility and anonymity offered by social networks.

In one instance, a 14-year-old girl from central Israel was unknowingly filmed while having sex, with her partner later uploading the footage to YouTube. In another case, photos of young women in sexual situations were uploaded to Facebook or other social networking sites along with their phone numbers.

Alcohol consumption among youth is also on the rise. The report found that nine out of 10 youths with whom ELEM volunteers worked last year admitted to regularly drinking alcohol, a phenomenon consistent across socio-economic class, ethnic background and geographic location.

Meanwhile, the age at which minors begin consuming alcohol has dropped, with some youths reporting that they had started drinking regularly as young as age 11. The amount of alcohol consumed has also risen - a trend the report linked to rising violence and sexual assault.

Gambling and loitering

The report also revealed that illegal gambling has become a mainstream pastime among teenagers, with the age at which gambling begins dropping rapidly. The most common forms of gambling are lottery tickets and poker (including online games), and many teenagers end up stealing to pay back debts.

The report called on law-enforcement agencies to better enforce regulations limiting gambling to individuals 18 and over.

"Youths see gambling as an everyday hobby," said ELEM President Nava Barak. "We at the organization know of many teenagers who have run into debts of thousands of shekels. In most cases these are instances of gambling addiction, in which the youth get drawn into theft and other criminal behavior to fund their gambling.

"We believe this trend will only increase, because young people are bored and seeking instant excitement," she said. "I urge the government to increase budgeting to deal with the problem: more funding for youth rehabilitation, more activities at my center, more consultation and information and more employment for teenagers."

The study also highlighted the relatively new phenomenon of loitering among adolescent girls from the national-religious and ultra-Orthodox communities. Several minors told the organization about feelings of alienation from their families, and of crises of identity and faith. A significant portion reported regularly using drugs and alcohol.

According to ELEM Director General Efrat Shaprut, "If in the past loitering was a socio-economic problem, today we are seeing that problems at home and alienation from family life lead to such behavior across all segments of society."