Warwick Mansell reports on the findings of a study investigating the health and behaviour of more than 18,000 young people.
THE NUMBER of teenagers admitting to reading for pleasure slumped to a new low last year - despite the Government's high-profile bid to fire youngsters' enthusiasm for literature.
The seemingly unstoppable rise of computer games is blamed as major new research reveals that only one in five 14 and 15-year-olds now picks up a book in the evening. Almost three out of five boys play computer games regularly.
Teenagers' enthusiasm for reading at home has been on the slide throughout the 1990s, according to Young People in 1998, a report compiled from surveys of 18,221 pupils by the Schools Health Education Unit based at Exeter University.
In 1991, 25 per cent of boys aged 14 and 15 reported reading a book for pleasure the previous evening. For girls of the same age, the figure was 35 per cent. Last year, the respective statistics were 18 per cent and 22 per cent.
By contrast, computer games have risen in popularity almost every year since 1990, when 35 per cent of boys said they had played one the previous evening. In 1998, the figure was 58 per cent. Even 19 per cent of girls admitted to playing games in the evening - almost as many as those who read.
However, teenagers have also shown a slightly increased commitment to homework in the past two years. Seventy per cent of Year 10 boys reported doing homework the previous evening, against 57 per cent in 1994.
John Balding, director of the unit, says: "The data support the general impression that reading is playing a less and less important part in young people's lives. A fall in the percentage of 'readers' between Years 8 and 10 implies a possible further decline into their late teens."
The findings, collected throughout 1998, illustrate the scale of the task facing ministers who last autumn launched the National Year of Reading. Promoting literacy has been a key priority of the Government since it came to power in 1997.
Other findings of the research, the largest aggregated survey of the health and behaviour of 12 to 15-year-olds, were that more teenage girls are now worrying about their weight. More than three out of five girls aged 14-15 want to lose weight - and many may be skipping breakfast or lunch, rather than exercising, to do so.
Paradoxically, the research found that both boys' and girls' self-esteem is at a record high.
Copies of the report are available at pound;35 from the Schools Health
Education Unit, Renslade House,
Bonhay Road, Exeter, Devon EX4
3AY, tel: 01392 667272,
A summary can be viewed at www.ex.ac.uksheu
THE STATE OF THE NATION'S 14 AND 15-YEAR-OLDS
The researchers also found that:
teenagers are increasingly worried about schoolwork. Thirty-five per cent of girls and 25 per cent of boys say they worry about it "quite a lot" or more. Among 14 and 15-year-old boys, school now ranks second to physical appearance as their chief worry;
the proportion of teenagers going to school by car has fallen slightly. Thirty per cent of 12 and 13-year-old girls, and 25 per cent of boys, came to school by car on the day of the questionnaire. Last year, the respective figures were 33 per cent and 27 per cent;
experimental drug use among 14 and 15-year-olds has declined. A total of 25 per cent of boys and 24 per cent of girls admitted to having tried an illegal drug. Two years ago, the figures were 33 per cent and 30 per cent;
disposable income has risen sharply. Average weekly income for boys aged 14 and 15 went up from pound;11 to pound;15 last year; for girls of the same age, it increased from pound;11 to pound;14.