Tag Archives: Adolescent

Why reading is key to giving our kids a great start in life

A growing body of research is pointing to how important and valuable reading is in giving children the best possible start in life, not just for academic success but more broadly including for a child’s mental health and happiness.

In this special episode of the Child of our Time Podcast, Professor Yvonne Kelly is joined by Jonathan Douglas, CEO of the National Literacy Trust and researcher Christina Clark, also from the  Trust. They discuss important new evidence about the benefits of reading for individual children and in addressing social inequalities.

Useful links

Do mental health problems have their roots in the primary school years?

Recent reports have shown worrying rises in young people suffering from mental health problems. A study for the Department of Education showed more than a third of teenage girls reporting depression, anxiety and low self-esteem. To try to understand this growing problem, Dr Afshin Zilanawala and fellow researchers from the ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies at UCL have investigated how certain aspects of learning in the primary school years and success affect the behaviour and wellbeing of early adolescents.

Young people who drink, smoke and have behavioural problems are known to be at risk of suffering poor health as adults.

Understanding what causes this risky behaviour, and the anxiety and low self-esteem associated with it, can help professionals to target those most likely to drop out of school, become pregnant as a teenager, become obese or to suffer other long-term health issues.

By planning support and prevention programmes during childhood, they can improve the likelihood of a successful and healthy adulthood for our most vulnerable young people, and reduce the pressure on health and social services.

Mental health

A recent YouGov survey of Britain’s university students revealed that more than a quarter of them report depression and poor mental health.

But could the roots of these problems be found by looking more closely at how children develop and learn throughout the primary school years?

Information on more than 11,000 children collected by the UK Millennium Cohort Study (MCS) was used in our research, which explores the links between children’s verbal abilities and their behaviour and well-being as they make the move to secondary school.

Using information collected at ages three, five, seven and 11, we were able to see how well they could read, the range of their vocabulary and their verbal reasoning skills.

Then, at age 11, the children were asked about their school work and life, their family and friends and their appearance. There were questions about how happy they were, whether they felt good about themselves. They were also asked if they had tried cigarettes or alcohol, and if they had stolen anything or damaged property.

Verbal performance

In terms of how well they were getting on, the children were divided into three groups (low, average and high verbal achievers).

This in itself produced a startling and worrying view of the diverging paths these different children follow over time, particularly between the ages of seven and 11. One in five of the children (the high achievers) did better and better at the verbal tests, stretching away from their peers as they prepared to head to secondary school. The majority (around three quarters) of children were on the middle path, making steady progress but then plateauing off. But, most striking of all was what happened to the low achieving group (around one in 17 of the children), whose verbal abilities declined steeply.

Verbal ability

Millennium Cohort Study

Having established these pathways, we went on to look at which children at age 11 were involved in risky behaviours and then to dig deeper to see how these behaviours related to their progress to date. We also looked at what other factors, especially those related to their family circumstances, might be at play.

Boys were more likely than girls to be smoking and drinking or getting involved in anti-social behaviour. Girls were more likely to suffer from low self-esteem. First-born children were happier and had higher self-esteem, and were less likely to smoke, drink and have problem behaviours than second or later birth-order children. Children with younger mums were also more likely to engage in risky behaviour.

Those from disadvantaged backgrounds and those with more unsupervised time were more likely to suffer from poor mental health. We also found those whose mothers suffered from depression were more at risk of mental health problems.

Looking at the raw data, the low achieving children were three times more likely to smoke than their high achieving peers and twice as likely as the average group. Low achieving and average achieving children were also more likely to drink.

One in three of the low achieving children compared with one in five of the high achievers had been involved in anti-social behaviour and were more than four times more likely to have behaviour problems as reported by their parent. They also had much lower levels of self esteem.

Family factors

When we took a range of family factors into account including the child’s age and gender, mother’s age and mental health and socioeconomic circumstances, many or all of the differences between the groups disappeared or became smaller, confirming the overriding importance of the family and social environment.

However, we can say, for the first time, and with considerable confidence, that how well children are reading, talking and reasoning, can and does influence their health and well-being as they become adolescents. Indeed, we found clear evidence that children who were performing below average in this area across childhood were more at risk of poor mental health and risky behaviour than their consistently above-average performing peers.

If we want those children to stand a better chance of a healthy and happy life, we need to focus a great deal of attention on what is happening at home and at school in those early years, particularly, our research would seem to show, between the ages of 7 and 11.

Our results are consistent with other research, which demonstrates the huge challenge for young people with poor verbal skills, who arrive at the doorstep of adolescence with mental health, self-esteem and behavioural issues, which are likely to continue into adult life.

Recent reports that child poverty figures in the UK are continuing to rise, despite successive Governments’ promises to reduce them, does not bode well in this context. Indeed, it would seem to indicate that it will be some time before the yawning gaps in inequality that we see at primary school and their knock-on effects on children’s wellbeing in adolescence can be closed.

Longitudinal Latent Cognitive Profiles and Psychosocial Well-being in Early Adolescence is research by Afshin Zilanawala, Amanda Sacker and Yvonne Kelly and is published in the Journal of Adolescent Health

Photo credit: Creative curriculum  US.Army

 

Why mental health is not your average problem

There have been numerous reports in recent months of a growing crisis in children and young people’s mental health. From increased suicide attempts and incidents of self-harm to reports of a complete lack of appropriate services, it’s said that young people are facing unprecedented social pressures and that society’s response has been inadequate. When it comes to trends over time in the mental wellbeing of young people, the evidence to date is conflicting. Meanwhile, new research by Andy Ross and colleagues at the ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies at UCL shows that the way we look at those trends may be masking an important story that could help those trying to tackle the problem to identify those most at risk of serious mental health problems.

There are few more high profile health issues at the moment than the mental health crisis among young people. The younger Royals may have helped raise public awareness about the need for more open conversations, but they agree the job is far from done. From a policy perspective, there are pledges of mental health legislation reform in the Queen’s Speech promises from Teresa May that her Government will “ensure that mental health is prioritised in the NHS in England”. But a recent report from NHS Providers says the government’s commitment to parity of esteem between mental and physical health services is being undermined by a failure to ensure funding increases reach the frontline.

Having a full and clear grasp of the scale of the problem and how young people’s mental wellbeing is changing over time will be key to any policies that may be developed to tackle it.

One of the main problems facing those trying to better understand the extent of the problem and whether the situation is getting better or worse, is that the evidence presented to date has been somewhat conflicting and, in some cases, doesn’t give the whole picture.

Some research has shown young people’s mental health deteriorating in the nineties and then stabilising and slightly improving in the early 2000s, whilst other work has evidenced a steady decline. Findings have also been different depending on whether it is teachers, parents or the young person themselves who are asked to report the symptoms.

Trends over time

We wanted to see whether we could add to and improve on the available evidence and show a more nuanced picture of mental health problems among young people by looking at trends over time, not just in respect of average levels of mental health, but also across the spectrum in levels of mental health. In simple terms, we were looking to see whether there were increases in the number of young people with unusually low levels of mental distress at the same time as increases in the numbers of those with very high levels of distress over an 18-year period.

Making use of information collected between 1991-2008 from more than 6,000 young people who took part in the British Household Panel Survey, we looked closely at their self-reported psychological distress. Once a year, young people between the ages of 16-24, were asked whether and how often, for example, they had experienced the loss of sleep through worry, a loss of confidence, felt constantly under strain, unhappy or depressed. They were also asked about positive symptoms such as their ability to concentrate and face up to their problems.

All this information was then combined to create an overall psychological distress score on a scale of 0-36, with high scores indicating high levels of psychological distress.

When we looked at the average psychological distress scores for young women in the study, we saw a small but significant increase over the 18-year period, indicating that, for this group, the situation worsened – in other words, their mental health deteriorated.

No increase was detected in the average scores for young men, which could be interpreted as a sign that levels of mental health among this group remained fairly stable.

At every time point, scores for women were worse than they were for men and this gap increased over time.

A story of polarisation

When we drilled deeper into the scores, however, the story changed a little. For young women there was a very clear and consistent increase in high and very high scores, following the overall increase in average scores mentioned above. The prevalence of those with high scores (17 and higher) increased from 12.8 per cent in 1991 to 18.8 per cent in 2008, and the prevalence of those with very high scores (20 and higher) from 6.6 per cent to 11.9 per cent. At the same time, however, there was also a small increase in the prevalence of those with scores much lower than average (5 and lower) from 10.6 per cent to 13.0 per cent.

It seems that when we move beyond looking only at average mental health scores over time, we identify two very different yet concurrent pictures of young women’s mental health. An increase in the number of young women presenting very poor levels of psychological distress, whilst at the same time an increase in young women with far better levels of mental health than average. In other words, over time, the mental wellbeing of young women appears to have become polarised.

Previously, our findings suggested that levels of mental health among young men had remained stable. However, when we look at both low and high scores over time, we find a very clear and consistent increase in low and very low scores, suggesting an overall improvement in levels of mental health among young men.

The prevalence of those with low and very low scores increased from 8.1 per cent to 15.6 per cent and from 2.1 per cent to 5.9 per cent respectively. At the other end of the scale however, whilst there was an increase in prevalence of those with high and very high scores, this increase was too small for us to consider it statistically significant[1]. Nevertheless, by considering trends at both ends of the spectrum we identified an improvement in young men’s mental health, which was otherwise ‘hidden’ when we only looked at average scores over time.

Although our study did not delve deeply into the backgrounds and circumstances of the young people with low and high scores, we did look at income levels to see if increasing levels of inequality might explain what we were seeing. It doesn’t appear to.

What we did find was evidence to support earlier research, which suggests that girls might feel increased pressure to achieve academically, which could contribute to increased levels of psychological distress.

Doing it for themselves

We are yet to explore causes for these trends, however one area that remains significantly under researched is the idea that we are becoming a more individualistic society, in which there are increased expectations placed on young people and an emphasis on them “doing it for themselves”. This includes increased pressure to take responsibility not just for one’s successes, but also for one’s failures, previously thought of as misfortunes, such as unemployment, illness and addiction. It is easy to imagine how the personalising of one’s failings could contribute to a young person’s poor mental health, or how they might develop a fear of failure even.

On the other hand, taking more responsibility for their own destiny could be empowering when things go well, boosting their self-esteem and confidence.

Evidence of polarising trends in young women’s mental health could be the first step in linking time trends to the sort of cultural and societal individualization that is being increasingly talked about amongst those concerned with the health and wellbeing of the UK’s young people.

For young women, continuing gender inequalities (some legislative, some cultural), which serve to frustrate women’s dreams of self-realisation, might also help to explain the differences in poor levels of mental health in particular that we see between them and young men.

By 2020, the NHS has promised that 70,000 more young people will be able to access services for their mental health problems. Robust evidence on trends and how the story of young people’s mental health is changing over time will be key to ensuring those services are provided effectively and efficiently.

Time trends in mental well-being: the polarisation of young people’s psychological distress is research by Andy Ross, Amanda Sacker and Yvonne Kelly and is published in the Journal of Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology

Photo credit: Allan Bergman

Screen use at seven: overweight at 11. Why it’s time to say no to a TV in the bedroom for children

Since the launch of the Childhood Obesity Strategy in 2016, there has been much attention focused on the so-called ‘Sugar Tax’. The March 2017 Budget saw confirmation that sugary soft drinks would be taxed in an attempt to combat rising levels of obesity. This is an important move that has been met with widespread approval from public health professionals. Still, obesity is hugely complex and there are many other things at play in addition to the sugary drinks and snacks that children may consume. Researchers at UCL have been looking in detail at different factors associated with obesity and, in a recent paper, find that children who have a television in their bedroom have higher BMI and more body fat than those who do not. Lead researcher, Anja Heilmann, explains the research and why saying no to a TV in the bedroom could be another important strategy in combatting childhood obesity.

As our TV screens have got flatter, our children have got fatter. There is no getting away from it! Screen-based activities play a central role in our children’s lives. At a very young age, they have unparalleled access to television screens, computers, game consoles and a host of mobile devices. Among 5 to 11 year-olds, TV is still the most consumed medium, with gaming coming second.

At the same time, childhood obesity is not just a national, but a global health worry. In 2014/15 a third of 11 year-old children in England were overweight and a fifth were obese.

Research has repeatedly reported a link between TV viewing and obesity, but although some has hinted at the idea that a television in a child’s bedroom might exacerbate the problem, the evidence here has been rather contradictory. Other plausible pathways could include eating unhealthy snacks whilst watching TV, exposure to food advertising and insufficient and poor quality sleep.

Using information from the Millennium Cohort Study (MCS), which has followed the lives of more than 18,000 children born around the turn of the century, we had the opportunity to see whether having a TV in their bedroom when they were age 7 was, in any way, linked with a child being overweight when they were 11 years old. In other words, we wanted to get to grips with whether there were implications over a child’s lifetime of their screen use and if so, what those implications were.

Useful information

Using trained interviewers, the MCS collects a wide range of useful information including the independently measured height, weight and body fat of a child. These provided us with a set of obesity-related measurements: weight, Body Mass Index (BMI) and Fat Mass Index (FMI), a powerful set of measures for overweight and obesity.

When the children were age seven, parents were asked if their son or daughter had a TV in their bedroom, how many hours they spent watching TV or DVDs and how much time they spent playing on a computer.

 At age 7, more than half of the 12,556 boys and girls we looked at in our research had a TV in their room and it was these children who were more likely to be overweight when they turned 11 when we compared them with those without a TV. They were also more likely to have higher BMI and FMI. In total, a quarter of the boys and nearly a third of the girls were overweight at age 11 and the links between having a TV in the bedroom and overweight were stronger for the girls.

Another strength of the research is that we controlled for the child’s BMI at age 3 and maternal BMI, that way adjusting for genetic factors, as well as food environment in the family. We also adjusted for family income and mother’s education – both of which are important as overweight/obesity is socially patterned, as is TV use.

Interestingly, there was no link between overweight and the time a child, whether they were a boy or a girl, spent playing on a computer.

Clear link

So, given the size of our sample and the robustness of the methods employed here, we can say with considerable confidence that there is a clear link between having a TV in the bedroom as a young child and being overweight a few years down the line. For girls, this represents a 30 per cent increase in the risk of being overweight at 11 compared with their peers who do not have one. For boys the risk increases by around 20 per cent.

Another interesting point to note is that the size of this risk or effect is about the same as that of other things shown to be linked with obesity, such as not being breastfed and being physically inactive.

Nevertheless, policy makers looking to create and implement strategies to reduce obesity should certainly consider building access to television screens in children’s bedrooms into their thinking. Specific initiatives focused on young girls could also be important.

Meanwhile, for parents who may consider it a good idea for a young child to have their own TV in their bedroom or feel under pressure to provide one, the message is quite clear: resist the idea and you may be doing even more to set your child on a healthier path into their teenage years and beyond.

Longitudinal associations between television in the bedroom and body fatness in a UK cohort study is research by Anja Heilmann, Patrick Rouxel, Emla Fitzsimons, Yvonne Kelly, and Richard Watt and is published in the International Journal of Obesity.

A risky problem: what can keep young people away from alcohol and cigarettes?

Smoking and drinking among very young people has been declining in recent years, but it’s not all good news. There is still a lot of public health concern around the numbers of older children who are consuming alcohol and cigarettes, as these are the young people most likely to come to harm as a result of drinking too much. Their risky behaviours are also likely to persist and intensify into adulthood. So what factors might prevent a young person from smoking and drinking in the first place? New research published in BMC Public Health shows that levels of happiness among children and awareness of the risks may be key to success. Lead author on the research, Noriko Cable, explains more. 

According to Public Health England (PHE), alcohol is now the leading risk factor for ill-health, early mortality and disability among those aged 15 to 49 in England. It wants to “prevent and reduce” the harms caused by alcohol. It also has ambitions to create “a tobacco-free generation” by 2025.

The most recent figures from the Survey of Smoking, Drinking and Drug Use Among Young People in England show that around 90,000 children aged between 11 and 15 are regular smokers and 240,000 have drunk alcohol in the past week. These figures are the lowest they have been since the survey began in 1982.

However, recent research published in BMC Public Health by colleagues at UCL, shows that around one in seven 11 year-olds is drinking alcohol and that having peers who consume alcohol makes them four times more likely to drink that their peers who don’t. We also know that smokers start young, two thirds of them before the age of 18.

So we wanted to examine more closely the sorts of things that might drive young people away from cigarettes and alcohol. In this way we hope to arm policy makers, health practitioners and those working directly with or caring for children and young people with information that can help with the development of clear policies and interventions.

Protective role

We focused on three factors thought to play a protective role in preventing young people from starting to smoke and drink. These were: their awareness of the harms, their well-being or happiness and how supportive their networks of friends and family were.

Information came from Understanding Society, a large UK survey, which, in addition to collecting a wide range of social and economic information from everyone in the household aged 16 and over, has a special self-completion questionnaire for 10-15 year olds. Our sample contained 1,729 boys and girls.

We examined answers at two time points (approximately a year apart) to questions about their smoking and drinking. With these two sets of information, we were able to see whether they had started but then stopped smoking or drinking, whether they were persistent users of cigarettes and alcohol, whether they had started between the first and second surveys (initiation) or whether they had not smoked or drunk alcohol at either point.

The children were also asked about how happy they were with different aspects of their lives, including how they were getting on at school, how they felt about their appearance, family and friends and life in general.

On a scale of 1-4, the children were asked to rate how risky they thought different levels of smoking and drinking were. They were also asked how many supportive friends they had; friends they could confide in.

Harm awareness and happiness

Nearly 70 per cent of the study participants described themselves as persistent non-users of alcohol and cigarettes, and around 13 per cent categorized themselves as persistent users. Persistent non-users scored highest on harm awareness and happiness tests compared to the other groups.

About 8 per cent of the study group labelled themselves as ex-users and about 13 per cent had started using alcohol or cigarettes between the first and second time they completed the survey. Young people aged 10 to 12 were more likely to be in the persistent non-use group, whereas participants aged 13 and above were more likely to be in the persistent user and initiation groups.

We were surprised that while, for most young people, knowledge of the potential and actual harms of alcohol and smoking was linked with them never drinking or smoking, for some it seemed to be associated with them starting to drink or smoke. It is possible that positive expectations from drinking alcohol or smoking cigarettes may, in some way, have overridden their awareness of what harm they could do.

The happier the young person was, and more aware of the harms of alcohol and cigarettes, the more likely they were never to drink or smoke. Having supportive friends to confide in did not play a role in preventing adolescents from using alcohol or cigarettes.

Promoting happiness and harms

So it seems that promoting young people’s happiness and well-being and making them aware of the harms of smoking and drinking may be key to keeping them away from alcohol and cigarettes. In terms of possible timings for information and interventions, another takeaway from the study might be that working with children between the ages of 10 and 12, before they start trying cigarettes and alcohol, could be important.

Because the information used in this study is self-reported, we need to interpret the findings with caution, but they do suggest that making adolescents aware of alcohol and smoking related harm can be helpful in preventing them from engaging in risky health behaviors.

Colleagues at the Centre are now getting to grips with the new age 14 data from the Millennium Cohort Study and, in collaboration with Mentor, a charity working on the ground in schools to tackle alcohol and drug abuse, are hoping to develop our growing body of evidence in this area that will help formulate policies and activities to make some of Public Health England’s ambitions around smoking and alcohol a reality.

Further information

What could keep young people away from alcohol and cigarettes? Findings from the UK Household Longitudinal Study is research by Noriko Cable, Maria Francisca Roman Mella and Yvonne Kelly and is published in BMC Public Health.

 

Reducing harm from alcohol consumption

Child of our Time editor Yvonne Kelly has shared her latest research findings on very young drinkers with policy makers, senior health professionals and third sector groups.

Yvonne was  part of a high profile panel presenting research and taking questions from MPs and others with an interest in the creation of a strategy to reduce harm from alcohol consumption.

The event, organised by The All-Party Parliamentary Health Group and CLOSER (the UK Longitudinal Studies Consortium), comes as a recent report from Public Health England stated that among those aged 15 to 49 in England, alcohol is now the leading risk factor for ill-health, early mortality and disability and the fifth leading risk factor for ill health across all age groups.

It has also been acknowledged that the harmful effects of heavy alcohol consumption go well beyond the implications for public health, presenting both serious economic and social challenges: current estimates of the annual cost to society of alcohol consumption range from 1.3% to 2.7% of annual GDP. In addition, around half of all violent incidents involving adults are alcohol-related.

Photo credit: Jes 

You can find more articles about Yvonne’s research on young people and alcohol by typing ‘alcohol’ into our blog Search bar.

Be prepared: the mental health benefits of scouting and guiding

Being a scout or a guide when we are young might be a good experience for us in all sorts of ways, but can those positive effects be long lasting though our lives and if so, how? Research using the 1958 Birth Cohort shows a strong link between being a scout or a guide when young and better mental health later in life. Professor Richard Mitchell from the University of Glasgow talks to the Child of our Time Podcast about the research, what he and colleagues from Edinburgh found and what he thinks it tells us.

Photo credit: One-and-Other Girl Guides UK

Cyberbullying – the long term effects

For all the wonderful opportunities and connectivity that the internet has brought in recent decades, it seems likely that 2016 will be the year that the internet is mostly remembered for trolling and cyberbullying. It’s a growing phenomenon, not least among school-aged children. In 2015/16 the children’s charity Childline reported a 2 year increase of 88 per cent in calls from children about cyberbullying and the Government recently funded an app aimed at helping pupils report incidents. Meanwhile, a team of researchers at Queen Mary University of London has been looking for the first time at how cyberbullying affects the mental health of young people later on in their lives. Dr Amanda Fahy explains more.

There are three Ps which distinguish cyberbullying from what we might think of as more ‘traditional’ face-to-face forms of bullying: permanence, publicity and permeability.

The thinking behind our study was that all these factors may well mean that the mental wounds and scars inflicted on young people who experience this type of bullying, run even deeper. Certainly it has been identified in numerous quarters as a matter of serious public health concern.

Whilst one or two international studies have demonstrated a link between being a cybervictim and signs of depression, there is little evidence in the UK to show who is affected and how over time. Our research looks at young people who are bullied, those doing the bullying and those who are both bullying and being bullied and goes onto examine their mental health one year down the line.

Regeneration study

The research made use of information collected initially from more than 3,000 Year 7 (aged 11-12) students who participated in the Olympic Regeneration in East London (ORiEL) study which was designed to evaluate the impact of the urban regeneration associated with the London 2012 Olympic Games.

When the students in the study moved into Year 8 (Aged 12-13) they were asked some questions about their experiences of cyberbullying in the preceding 12 months. These included how often they had received rude or nasty comments from someone, become the target of rumours spread online or received threatening or aggressive comments.

The same students were asked if and how often they had been a perpetrator of cyberbullying. Had they sent rude or nasty comments to anyone, spread rumours or sent aggressive or threatening messages online?

A year later when the students had entered Year 9 (aged 13-14) students were asked a range of questions about their experiences and feelings from the previous two weeks and this information was used to create scores for signs of depression, social anxiety and poor mental well-being.

Involvement in cyberbullying

More than 40% of the students reported involvement in cyberbullying in the previous 12 months – 13.6% as cybervictims, 8.2% as cyberbullies and 20.4% as cyberbully-victims. Girls were a lot less likely than boys to fall into the latter category.

Around a quarter of all the young people interviewed showed signs of depression and/or social anxiety and here, with girls more likely than boys to report these symptoms and have lower levels of well-being.

Victims of cyberbullying were almost twice as likely as the completely uninvolved youngsters to show signs of depression even after taking a range of background factors into account. The effect stayed strong even after we accounted for them having poor mental health when they joined the study age 11-12.

Those who reported both being bullied and doing the bullying were more than twice as likely as those who were completely uninvolved to be depressed, whilst those who said they had only been involved in bullying were no more or less depressed than their uninvolved peers.

Damaging effects

The findings for social anxiety and lower levels of well-being were similar to the findings for depression, providing us with a clear picture of the damaging psychological impacts of cyberbullying for victims and for those who were both bullied and perpetrators themselves of cyber bullying.

With 4 out of ten children of this age involved in some way with cyberbullying and given that our results showed that even low level experiences of cyberbullying can have harmful effects over time, it is key that all those involved in the care, education and well-being young adolescents have a grasp of the issues involved and the tools to reduce and prevent its occurrence where possible. Our research indicates that boys and young people who are both victims and bullies are important groups to target.

Longitudinal Associations Between Cyberbullying Involvement and Adolescent Mental Health is research by Amanda Fahy, Stephen Stannsfeld, Melanie Smuk, Neil Smith, Steven Cummins and Charlotte Clark. It is published in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

Photo credit: bad-cyberbully, Winning Information

Sugar-coating the childhood obesity problem

Child obesity figures appear to be on the rise again, causing much concern after earlier signs they had levelled off.  The proportion of  10- and 11-year-olds who were obese in 2015-16 was 19.8 percent, up 0.7 percent on the year before. There was a rise of 0.2 percent among four- and five-year-olds. The announcement comes as researchers at the ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies at UCL have been looking in detail at how and when children become overweight. The team has also been asking whether children who are overweight are more likely to go on to smoke and drink alcohol and if their mental health suffers as they become adolescents. Yvonne Kelly explains the research findings, and considers their implications for the Government’s recent strategy for tackling the childhood obesity epidemic.

The Government’s much-awaited and much-debated childhood obesity strategy was published in August. In the end, it was less comprehensive than had been anticipated, less draconian too. It focuses on two things – reducing sugar consumption and increasing physical activity. But will it be effective in reversing this worrying obesity trend among our children?

It’s fair to say we don’t fully understand what things influence whether, when and why a child might become overweight. Research to date has shown three distinct weight pathways for children: a healthy BMI throughout childhood; becoming overweight during childhood and being overweight/obese throughout childhood.

Previous research has also shown that the child’s mother’s weight, smoking in pregnancy, mental health and other social and economic factors have some link to childhood obesity. But the evidence is far from complete and, where a child’s own mental health is concerned, it’s not at all clear which way the association works.

To try to get a clearer picture of all these things, our research looked at the BMI paths of the participants in the Millennium Cohort Study, which has tracked the lives of nearly 20,000 children born between 2000-2002. We used data collected at birth, 9 months, age 3, 5, 7 and 11.

Once we had established who was on which BMI path, we were able to look at what factors were at play in their lives and to see whether a tendency to overweight and obesity was an indication that a child would go on to face mental health difficulties in early adolescence or start smoking and drinking.

Four pathways to obesity

The BMI data for the 17,000 children we were able to look at for our study showed four distinct groups of children. More than 80 per cent of them stayed on an average non-overweight path throughout their childhood – we call it the ‘stable’ path. There was a small group (0.6 percent) of children who were obese at age 3 but were then in the stable group by age 7. We call them the the ‘decreasing’ group. There was a ‘moderate increasing group’ (13.1 percent) where children were not overweight at age 3 but whose BMIs increased throughout childhood into the overweight (but not obese) range. Finally we had a ‘high increasing’ group of children (2.5 percent) who were obese at age 3 and whose BMIs continued to increase.

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Girls were 30 percent more likely to be in the ‘moderate increasing’ group than boys and were half as likely to be on the ‘decreasing’ path. Indian, Pakistani and Black African children were up to two times more likely to be on the ‘moderate increasing’ path whilst Pakistani, Black Caribbean and Black African children were up to three times more likely to belong to the ‘high increasing’ group.

The wealthiest children were least likely to be in the ‘moderate increasing’ BMI group and children of mums who smoked during pregnancy were up to two times as likely to belong to increasing BMI groups. Children with overweight mums were most likely to be on the moderate and high increasing paths.

Children on the moderate and high increasing paths were less likely to have regular family routines – they were more likely to skip breakfast or have non-regular bedtime schedules. Interestingly, however, no strong links emerged with some of the things more readily linked with childhood obesity such as sugary drinks and snacks, watching TV and lack of physical activity such as sports, the main focus of the newly published childhood obesity strategy.

Overweight factors

So it seems quite a large range of factors influence the likelihood of a child becoming overweight or obese over the first decade of their life. On top of this, being overweight or obese would also seem to point to a less happy and fulfilling early adolescence and a tendency to explore risky behaviours like smoking and drinking.

Although our research did not show a clear link with sugary drinks and snacks, there are nevertheless some compelling arguments for reducing the sugar intake of our children. These are not only related to problems of obesity, but to wider issues including the major issue of tooth decay and associated emergency hospital admissions. There is also increasing evidence of the ‘addictive’ nature of sugar with research suggesting that it stimulates a sort of ‘reward path’ in certain centres of the brain meaning that the more we have the more we want. It has been shown that people who reduce their sugar intake tend to crave it less.

Where sugar taxes have been introduced in other countries (Mexico, France, Denmark, South Africa amongst others), the intervention has been shown to help reduce the consumption of sugary drinks. As yet, there is no evidence that it helps reduce BMI and tackle obesity, but it’s argued it will take time for us to see an effect on whole populations.

Disadvantaged families

It is hard to predict how much impact the voluntary rather than mandatory reduction in sugar content of drinks and snacks agreed in the strategy will have. As for the sugar tax that will be introduced in two years’ time, there remain concerns that disadvantaged families more likely to purchase and consume sugary goods than their better off counterparts will be hardest hit. Policy makers will need to think hard about how any negative consequences of this might be counteracted.

Our research shows clearly that when it comes to the likelihood of a child becoming overweight or obese in the first decade of their life, there are many more influences than just sugar. Those influences are at play in families even before our children are born.

Helping pregnant women to stop smoking and maintain a healthy weight, making sure all young children have healthy eating and sleeping routines would seem to be key, together with targeted support for the ethnic and social groups identified as being most at risk.

Further information and resources

BMI development and early adolescent psychosocial well-being: UK Millennium Cohort Study is research by Yvonne Kelly, Praveetha Patalay, Scott Montgomery, and Amanda Sacker. The work, published in Pediatrics, is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.

Media coverage

Photo credit: Kim Stromstad

Early puberty: a question of background?

New research examining the connections between early puberty in girls and their socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds is being presented to an international audience of researchers in Germany today.

Early puberty in 11-year-old girls: Millennium Cohort Study findings is work led by Child of our Time editor Yvonne Kelly using information on 5,839 girls from the Millennium Cohort Study.

The findings, presented at the Society for Longitudinal and Life Course Studies 2016 conference in Bamberg indicate clearly that socioeconomic and ethnic disparities are apparent in the UK and are important for all those interested in the short and long term implications for early puberty on women’s health and well being.