Why idle loitering is good for teenagers

Youngsters who hang out in shopping centres may annoy many adults but they have expert backing. Michael Shaw and Adi Bloom find some unusual insights at the annual gatherings of UK psychologists

TEENAGERS who loiter together outside the shops may scare the customers, but they are doing wonders for their social development.

The discovery that "hanging out" is vital for teenage interaction was one of the findings being presented at the British Psychological Society's annual conferences this week.

Dr Charlotte Clark of the University of Sussex announced yesterday that adolescents were drawn towards public places by a deep-seated need for social interaction.

"Meeting up with your friends in the town centre is an important stage on the path to adulthood, although too often adults see it as threatening," she said.

Dr Clark interviewed more than 600 teenagers for her research, and concluded that urban areas should be designed to meet adolescents' needs to meet and "retreat".

Other findings due to be presented at Brighton today included the theory that computer games can cut hyperactivity in children.

Researchers from the University of Strathclyde were also expected to reveal that more boys would help tackle school bullying if talking to teachers was presented as being brave and "macho".

Meanwhile at the BPS's health psychology conference in Sheffield, delegates heard that teachers taking medication for stress-related disorders may pose a risk to their pupils.

Psychologists at Brunel and Loughborough universities have been examining how stress, depression and anxiety and the medication used to treat the conditions, affect patients' working lives.

They found that many patients - including teachers - were unprepared for the drugs' side effects.

Cheryl Haslam, professor of health psychology at Brunel, said: "One teacher was taking a minibus of schoolchildren on a trip, and realised that he hadn't been concentrating on his driving. He said he was lucky to get back safely.

"Other teachers wake up at 3am, and use alcohol to get to sleep. When they turn up for work, they're not in a position to function normally."

Research conclusions will be used to compile guidelines for employers. But a spokeswoman for the National Union of Teachers criticised the research for invading teachers' private lives. "It wouldn't be appropriate for the school to determine the type of treatment a teacher should have," she said.

Other studies presented at the health conferences showed that stress was affecting pupils' diets. Researchers have been analysing the health behaviour of 11 to 12- year-old children in 36 south London schools over five years.

They found that children who were experiencing greater stress tended to consume more fatty foods, fewer portions of fruit and vegetables. They were more inclined to snack and less likely to eat breakfast.

The BPS events continue next week with conferences on cognitive psychology at the University of Kent at Canterbury (September 9-11) and social psychology at Huddersfield University (September 11-13).

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