Teenagers still smoke, drink and gamble, but have a better diet and need fewer fillings, Nicolas Barnard reports
Healthy lifestyle messages are hitting home to teenagers, new research has found - but smoking is still on the increase and signs are emerging of gambling addictions.
The latest annual survey by the Schools Health Education Unit, of Exeter University, finds young people eating better, washing their hands more often and needing fewer dental fillings than 10 years ago. But they do less exercise, smoke more cigarettes and although they watch less TV, they play more computer games.
And despite heeding healthy living messages, many children say they feel they have no control over their own well-being. That, say health educators, could have major implications for cutting smoking and other unhealthy behaviour.
The unit surveyed 22,000 pupils aged 12 to 15 across the country in the largest exercise of its kind.
The wide-ranging study looks at specific health issues such as smoking and diet, but also tests young people's knowledge and awareness of issues such as HIV, and services such as family planning.
Researcher Dave Regis, one of the team which carried out the exercise last year, said there was much to be pleased about in the results.
"The bottom line is: 'Don't panic.' Young people aren't going off the rails - they're probably doing a lot better than we did at their age given the pressures they are under," he said.
The past 10 years have seen diets improve - more children have breakfast, more girls have lunch, and fewer teenagers are stuffing themselves with crisps and chips.
But 15 per cent of all 14 and 15-year-old girls still ate nothing at breakfast and similar numbers skipped lunch. Almost two-thirds said they would like to slim - yet only 15 per cent were technically overweight.
The survey confirmed recent concern about the mental health of young people. More than 15 per cent of boys and 20 per cent of girls had a depressed outlook on life.
Self-esteem was higher among boys than girls. And although girls' self-image improved with age, more than one in five girls in Year 10 had low or very low self-esteem.
This was linked to the control young people felt they had over their health. Only around half felt in charge of their health. Around 15 per cent felt it was a matter of luck.
That could have an impact on the success of health education in schools. If pupils feel they have little or no control over their health, they have little motivation to adopt a healthy lifestyle.
Mr Regis said the gap was particularly marked among young smokers. Those who wanted to give up had very low self-esteem. Those who didn't want to quit had no such problems. Smokers also felt their health was "a game of chance - you can get ill from anything.
"You have to ask whether or not they see an overall pay-off in looking after their health," he said.
Researchers hope the results of the survey will feed into health education programmes. One conclusion is that health educators must listen to young people and understand what their needs are.
When teenagers were asked which health issues concerned them, parenthood and cancer came high on the list among girls - and not lung cancer, but breast cancer and cervical cancer, two topics usually missing from the curriculum.
Mr Regis said that, with effective support, teenagers' health could be expected to continue improving.