Revealing new insights into young people's health

A report published by the WHO Regional Office for Europe gives revealing new insights into aspects of young people's lives that can help or harm their health. Young people's health in context reports on the most recent survey of the Health Behaviour in School-aged Children study, which covered almost 162 000 young people aged 11, 13 and 15 years in 35 countries and regions in the WHO European Region and North America. 

The report examines young people's health through a wide range of key health indicators, including alcohol, tobacco and cannabis use, injuries, physical activity, bullying and physical fighting, and sexual behaviour. It also describes the social and economic circumstances of young people's lives: their family situations, contact with friends and experience of school. "All these topics are commonly reported and discussed, but now we can provide unique research in these areas, which could be relevant and helpful for policy- and decision-makers. The report reveals the real behaviour of young people that affects their health - and their lives," comments Dr Marc Danzon, WHO Regional Director for Europe.

The risks to young people's health can never be reduced to zero, but the study provides information that can help lower them to more acceptable levels. The report points out that joint action is needed from governments, civil society, international agencies, parents and young people, in order to protect young people and help them protect themselves.

How do young people rate their health? The survey found that, among 15-year-olds, 8-32% of boys and 13-63% of girls in the 35 countries and regions report their health to be fair or poor. Girls are more likely to report poor or fair health than boys. Over 42% of girls report poor health in Latvia, Lithuania, the Russian Federation and Ukraine.

The report's findings show that many young people engage in behaviour that can weaken or harm their health. By the age of 15, 24% report smoking and 29% report drinking on a weekly basis. Perhaps most striking, cannabis use is also common among 15-year-olds: 22% have tried it and 8% report using it regularly (3–39 times in the previous 12 months). Levels vary widely, however, among the countries and regions.

A large majority of the young people surveyed is physically inactive. On average, fewer than two fifths meet the guidelines for an acceptable amount of weekly physical activity. Around a quarter of young people watch television for four or more hours a day and a seventh spend more than three hours a day at the computer. 

The survey shows that around a third of girls and a fifth of boys think they are too fat. Among 15-year-olds, 23% of girls and 7% of boys are dieting or doing something else to lose weight. Young people's own reports suggest that around 12% of those aged 13 and 15 years are overweight, including 2% who are estimated to be obese. Many of the participants in the survey eat too little fruit and vegetables, and consumption decreases with age.

The report provides new information on some little-explored areas, such as injuries, bullying and physical fighting, and sexual activity among youngsters. Over 40% of the participants in the survey suffered injuries requiring medical attention in the previous 12 months. Bullying rates vary substantially across countries and regions, with consistently low levels across all age groups in the Czech Republic, Ireland, Malta, Scotland, Slovenia, Sweden and Wales.

As to sexual health, the levels of 15-year-olds who report having had sexual intercourse varies greatly, from under 10% of girls in Croatia, Greece, Israel, Poland and The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia to over 40% of girls in Greenland and Wales. Among boys, the lowest rates (under 25%) are found in Austria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Poland and Spain, and the highest (over 40%) in Greenland, the Russian Federation and Ukraine. On average, among the sexually active, 70% of girls and 80% of boys report using condoms during their last intercourse. Rates of condom use are highest in some southern European countries, and lowest in Finland, Germany, Sweden and the United Kingdom.

Young people's health in context will be launched in Edinburgh, Scotland, United Kingdom, on 4 June. Journalists are invited to attend the press conference at St Thomas of Aquin's High School, 2–20 Chalmers St, Edinburgh at 10.30. The launch will be hosted by the Child and Adolescent Health Research Unit, University of Edinburgh, a WHO collaborating centre.

More information on the Health Behaviour in School-aged Children study and its survey results is available on the WHO Regional Office for Europe web site – a fact sheet (http://www.euro.who.int/eprise/main/WHO/MediaCentre/FactSheets/20040528_1 ) and the pages on the promotion of young people's health (http://www.euro.who.int/youthhealth

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