Tag Archives: Teenager

Time to help our children get a move on

 World Health Organisation and United States guidelines say adolescents should do at least an hour’s moderate-to-vigorous physical activity each day. But a new global study shows eight out of 10 fail to meet that standard – and there is a widening gender gap. Professor Yvonne Kelly and Fran Abrams outline new research revealing worrying trends which demonstrate the need for political and social choices that will help young people enjoy the social, physical and mental benefits of being active.

Physical activity has many health benefits for young people – and globally,  four in every five adolescents do not benefit from regular physical activity.

 In 2018, the WHO launched a global action plan called More Active People for a Healthier World. It aimed to reduce the proportion of people doing insufficient physical activity by 15 per cent by 2030 among both adolescents and adults. 

Now in a major new study WHO researchers have analysed information on 1.6 million school students aged 11-17 in 146 countries. They found some positive trends but argued much still needed to be done to encourage young people to exercise more.

There was a small reduction over 15 years in the proportion of boys not doing enough, though this still fell well short of the WHO’s target. But the proportion of girls meeting the target remained static and this led to a widening gender gap. 

As has been shown in the UK such gender differences start early with lower levels of physical activity in girls emerging before they become teenagers. 

The authors of a separate investigation using the Millennium Cohort Study (MCS) suggest the main reason for young people not exercising or sleeping enough is the amount of time they spend using screens. This is a hotly contested area, intuitively, ‘too much screen time’ and ‘too little exercise’ might appear to sit side by side.  However, in this kind of study, it is not possible to infer that one causes the other. 

The WHO study showed the majority of adolescents did not meet physical activity guidelines, putting their current and future health at risk. Although there were small reductions in insufficient activity among boys, the prevalence of insufficient physical activity in girls had remained unchanged since 2001.

 

Figure 1 Prevalence of insufficient physical activity among school-going adolescents aged 11–17 years, globally and by World Bank income group, 2001 and 2016

Huge dataset

The dataset used in the WHO study was huge – the young people studied had provided information for at least three years and the analysis covered four World Bank income groups, nine regions, and the globe as a whole for the years 2001–16. Saying that, although  the research data covered more than 80 per cent of the global population, it still didn’t cover every county and region. And the estimates for low-income countries need to be treated with caution as the coverage there was much lower – only 36 per cent.

The overall analysis showed that more than eight out of 10 school-going adolescents aged 11–17 did not meet the recommendations for daily physical activity. The small improvements in boys’ activity levels, combined with the static position in girls’ activity, suggested a target of more than 30 per cent of adolescents meeting the recommended level by 2030 will not be met.

Globally, across all income groups and regions and in nearly all the countries analysed, girls were less active than boys.

And perhaps surprisingly, the research did not find that the problem was worse in higher-income countries. However, this was not the case for girls, for whom there was no clear pattern in relation to country income.

Differences in activity levels

In addition to variations related to gender and affluence, there were also differences in activity levels between different parts of the world. The boys least likely to meet activity targets were in the high-income Asia Pacific region, but the second-least likely were in lower-income Sub-Saharan Africa and particularly in Sudan and Zambia. 

The boys most likely to meet the targets were found in high-income western and south Asian countries with large populations such as the USA, Bangladesh, and India.

These variations might be driven by specific characteristics of particular countries – for example, as the research looked at school children the picture might be skewed in countries where disadvantaged children often do not attend school, or in places where the tradition of school or community sport is strong.

For girls, the largest proportions failing to meet the targets were in Asia Pacific and particularly in South Korea- though in some of those countries girls’ participation in education is low and that might have affected the study’s sample.

The recent MCS study by academics from Loughborough University and University College London used data from 3899 adolescents. This study, in which young people were fitted with activity monitors, found that while nine out of 10 were getting the recommended amount of sleep, just four in ten met exercise targets and a quarter were keeping to the recommended screen time. These figures were higher than those in the WHO study, which could be explained by the different methods used to measure activity and which show just how important it is to consider HOW activity is measured.

The study looked at  some correlates of physical activity and showed that adolescent girls who had depressive symptoms were less likely to meet all three of these recommendations (8-10 hours of sleep, no more than two hours of screen time and at least an hour a day of physical activity), while those from better-off backgrounds were more likely to meet them. Among boys, those who were obese and those who had depressive symptoms were less likely to meet the recommendations. However, it is not possible to rule out the potential for cyclical associations to be at play here as low levels of physical activity could lead to depressed mood and to weight gain.

What can be done? 

  • More research is needed to understand the causes of non-participation in exercise – social, economic, cultural, environmental and technological. 
  • Policy change should be prioritised and should encourage all forms of physical education – sport, active play, and recreation as well as safe walking and cycling.
  • Social marketing campaigns such as the National Lottery funded #thisgirlcan campaign combined with community-based interventions could be starting points to increase physical activity levels in girls, particularly in countries with wide gender differences. This approach has been identified as cost-effective.
  • Schools, families, sport and recreation providers, urban planners, and city and community leaders all need to become involved.

That four in every five adolescents do not experience the enjoyment and social, physical, and mental health benefits of regular physical activity is not a chance thing – it is the consequence of political  choices. 

Young people have the right to play and should be provided with the opportunities to realise their right to physical and mental health and wellbeing. Urgent action is needed, particularly through targeted interventions to promote and retain girls’ participation in physical activity. Policymakers and stakeholders should be encouraged to act now for the health of this young generation and of future ones.

Yvonne Kelly is Professor of Lifecourse Epidemiology and Director of the ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies at UCL. She is editor of the Child of our Time blog.

Fran Abrams is CEO of the Education Media Centre and freelance journalist who writes for the Child of our Time blog.

Global trends in insufficient physical activity among adolescents: a pooled analysis of 298 population-based surveys with 1·6 million participants, by Regina Guthold, Leanne Riley, Fiona Bull and Gretchen Stevens, is published in The Lancet Child and Adolescent Health.

Regina Guthold, Leanne Riley and Fiona Bull are based at the Department for Prevention of Noncommunicable Diseases, WHO, Geneva, Switzerland and Gretchen Stevens is at the Department for Information, Evidence and Research, WHO, Geneva, Switzerland.  Fiona Bull is also affiliated with the Department of Sport and Exercise Science, University of Western Australia, Perth.

Prevalence and Correlates of Meeting Sleep, Screen-Time, and Physical Activity Guidelines Among Adolescents in the United Kingdom, by Natalie Pearson, Lauren B Sherar and Mark Hamer, is published in JAMA Paediatrics: 

Natalie Pearson and Lauren Sherar are at the School of Sport, Exercise & Health Sciences, Loughborough University, United Kingdom, and Mark Hamer is at the Institute of Sport Exercise & Health, Division of Surgery & Interventional Science, Faculty of Medical Sciences, University College London, United Kingdom.

Adolescent mental health and risky behaviour – how have things changed for millennials?


In recent years the incidence of adolescent mental health problems has been rising. But at the same time, risky behaviour such as substance abuse – which has been linked to such problems – has become less common. So what has been going on? Praveetha Patalay from University College London and Suzanne Gage from the University of Liverpool looked at how things have changed over a decade among millennials born in early 1990s and early 2000s.

Headlines about adolescents have been dominated in recent years by concerns about mental health and wellbeing.

We know the prevalence of mental health issues has been rising among this group – and that the phenomenon is not restricted to the UK: international comparisons  have shown the trend is mirrored across the globe.

And there’s a growing recognition that adolescence is a key time in this respect – half of those who suffer later from a mental health disorder experience symptoms by the age of 14.

Changing behaviour

Yet we know from official reports that at the same time, some types of risky behaviour which are linked with poor mental health have become less common among the young. Adolescents in the UK are less likely to be under-age substance abusers, and the proportion of 14 year-olds who smoke regularly has dropped to just a quarter of what it was in 1982.

A new piece of research looks at how rates of different mental health and health related behaviours such as substance use but also sleep, weight perception and underage sex are changing.  

The paper looks at data for two cohorts of UK adolescents – those who were 14 in 2005 and those who were the same age in 2015. It uses data from two UK birth cohort studies – 5,627 young people born in 1991-2 who were part of the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children, and  11,318 born 2000–02 who were part of the Millennium Cohort Study.

The researchers looked at trends in mental health problems such as depression and self-harm, and found a picture broadly similar to previous studies. These phenomena had become more prevalent over time, with the incidence of high levels of depressive symptoms rising from six per cent in 2005 to 15 per cent in 2015. In contrast with some other studies they found boys had suffered an increase just as great as girls.

Poor mental health in our teenage years can predict a whole range of negative outcomes later on – poor physical health, worse job prospects and poor personal relationships, for instance.

Behaviour and health

And yet these results showed significant drops in various types of behaviour which are linked with poor mental health. For instance, the proportion who had assaulted someone at age 14 dropped from 40 per cent in 2005 to 28 per cent in 2015. Fewer young people had tried alcohol, binge drinking, smoking or having sex by the age of 14. 

In this sample, young people in 2015 were more likely to have later bedtimes, to wake up earlier and to sleep less than the recommended eight hours. They were more likely to see themselves as overweight and to have higher Body Mass Index, or BMI. 

These relationships aren’t simple. Other factors have changed over time, too. For instance the proportion of young people from ethnic minority backgrounds has risen, though that was taken into account. 

The researchers suggest that increasing trends in risky behaviours such as decreasing sleep times, increasing weight and poor body image need to be investigated as potential explanatory factors for increasing mental health difficulties experienced by adolescents.

But there are some clear findings from this study. The rapid increase in depressive symptoms, self-harm, obesity and loss of sleep in adolescents over the past decade is an important finding in itself, and understanding the reasons for this could be a priority for both practitioners and policy-makers.

Changes in millennial adolescent mental health and health-related behaviours over 10 years: a population cohort comparison study is research by Praveetha Patalay and Suzanne H Gage and is published in the International Journal of Epidemiology.

Teenage depression: The potential pitfalls of too much social media use

A new mobile phone will be in the pockets of many teenagers as they head back to school in the coming days. The period between Xmas and New Year will have been spent signing up for social media apps where they can chat, share photos and videos with friends, all part of the excitement of owning a new device. But how many of these young people and their parents are aware of the potential pitfalls of spending too much time on social media sites?  And what can parents, teachers and young people themselves do to maximize the benefits of life online whilst minimising those pitfalls? It’s a question that Yvonne Kelly, Director of the ESRC International Centre for Life course Studies at UCL and colleagues have been asking as part of a major programme of research on social media use and young people’s wellbeing. Today they publish key new research, which provides much-needed new evidence on the links between heavy social media use and depression in teenagers. The research shines light on the underlying processes that could be at work and that might explain the link between the two. Here, Yvonne explains how their research might help policymakers, educators, parents and young people themselves better understand and prevent the potential pitfalls of living too much of their life on social media platforms.

2018 has seen a growing chorus of voices including those of the former and current Health Secretaries, Jeremy Hunt and Matt Hancock calling for a thorough investigation of the links between social media use and the growing numbers of young people struggling with mental health issues. Indeed Matt Hancock issued “an urgent warning” on the potential dangers of social media on children’s mental health, stating that the threat of social media on mental health is similar to that of sugar on physical health.

The Chief Medical Officer, Dame Sally Davies has been tasked by the Government with leading that investigation and with coming up with evidence based recommendations around what constitutes safe social media use and what changes need to be made and by whom to make that a reality. The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) recently issued the first ever guidance on managing children’s screen time, calling for further research particularly into social media.

In recent months, we and others have submitted written and oral evidence to two Parliamentary inquiries in this area and had discussions with the Royal Society for Public Health which is campaigning actively  to get us all thinking harder about our social media use.

We’ve talked about our early research  showing that 10 year-old girls who used social media sites for chatting had more social and emotional problems at age 15 than their peers who used them less or not at all. Those problems continued to get worse as they got older.

Our new research published in The Lancet’s EClinical Medicine draws stronger links between heavy social media use and depressive symptoms in girls and boys at the age of 14.  We look at the possible ways in which social media use might linked to depressive symptoms. We consider 4 potential pathways – through young people’s sleep patterns, their experiences of online harassment, body image and self-esteem. It is the first research to look at all of these potential pathways at the same time.

Our data for this research came from the Millennium Cohort Study, which has followed the lives of some 19,000 children born at the turn of the century. This piece of research, looked at the social media use and mental health of nearly 11,000 of the study’s participants.

Social media use

In line with our earlier research, we saw that girls were heavier users of social media than boys with two fifthsof them using it for more than 3 hours per day (compared with one fifthof boys). Girls were a lot less likely NOT to use social media at all (4 per cent girls and 10 per cent boys).

Examining the underlying processes that might be linked with social media use and depression, we saw a number of really striking findings including:

  • 40 per cent of girls and 25 per cent of boys had experience of online harassment or cyberbullying
  • 78 per cent of girls and 68 per cent of boys were unhappy with their body/weight and 15 percent girls and 12 per cent of boys were unhappy with their appearance
  • 13 per cent of girls and 9 per cent of boys had low self-esteem
  • 13 per cent of girls and 11 per cent of boys reported getting fewer than 7 hours sleep per night and 40 per cent of girls and 28 per cent of boys said their sleep was often disrupted

Girls, it seems from these findings, are struggling more with these aspects of their lives than boys – in some cases considerably more. When we turned our attention to the signs of depression exhibited by our participants, we could see that here too girls fared worse with scores on average twice as high as those of boys.

The link between social media use and depressive symptoms was stronger for girls compared with boys. For girls, greater daily hours of social media use corresponded to a stepwise increase in depressive symptoms and the percent with clinically relevant symptoms. For boys, higher depressive symptom scores were seen among those reporting 3 or more hours of daily social media use.

There was a clear link between social media use and all the pathways we investigated – more time spent on social media related to having poorer sleep, more experiences of on-line harassment, unhappiness with the way they look and low self esteem. In turn, these things were directly related to having depressive symptoms.

A closer look at the pathways was also revealing. The most important routes from social media use to depressive symptoms were shown to be via poor sleep and online harassment.

Social media use linked directly to having poor sleep which in turn was related directly to having more depressive symptoms. The role of online harassment was more complex, with multiple pathways through poor sleep, self-esteem and body image, all of which linked directly to depressive symptoms.

Potential pitfalls and key routes

Our findings add weight to the growing evidence base on the potential pitfalls associated with lengthy time spent engaging on social media. In particular they point to poor sleep and online harrassment as being key routes between social media use and depression.

These findings are highly relevant to current policy development on guidelines for the safe use of social media and calls on industry to more tightly regulate hours of social media use for young people. They add weight to the Screen Time Guidance issued by the RCPCH today, particularly the suggestion to set and agree child appropriate time limits on screen use.

When it comes to social media use specifically, our research indicates that the a similar approach could be useful. Clinical, educational and family settings are all potential points of contact where young people could be encouraged and supported to reflect not only on their social media use, but also other aspects of their lives including on-line experiences and their sleep patterns.

At home, families may want to reflect on when and where it’s ok to be on social media and agree limits for time spent online. Curfews for use and the overnight removal of mobile devices from bedrooms might also be something to consider. School seems an obvious setting for children and young people to learn how to navigate online life appropriately and safely and for interventions aimed at promoting self-esteem. Clearly a large proportion of young people experience dissatisfaction with the way they look and how they feel about their bodies and perhaps a broader societal shift away from the perpetuation of what are often highly distorted images of idealised beauty could help shift these types of negative perceptions.

As we head into 2019, millions of young people will be getting their first experiences of life online using the devices they got for Xmas. They will rapidly become expert at downloading apps, posting photos and interacting with their peers. With the gift there was no instruction manual to help them understand and navigate some of the pitfalls our research outlines. We hope our work brings, at least, some guidance for all those keen to ensure these children continue to thrive and do well, so that they enjoy the benefits that new digital technology brings whilst staying safe and happy.

Social media use and adolescent mental health: Findings from the Millennium Cohort Study is research by Yvonne Kelly, Afshin Zilanawala, Cara Booker and Amanda Sacker and is published in The Lancet’s EClinicalMedicine journal.

Calling time on a life of likes could be key to girls’ happiness

There have been increasing calls in recent months for more to be done to prepare children for the emotional demands of social media. Just a few weeks ago, the Government’s Science and Technology Committee announced an inquiry into the impact of social media on the health of young people. But do girls and boys use social media as much as each other and is all this time spent Facebooking, Whatsapping and Snapchatting having a detrimental effect on their happiness and well-being? Cara Booker from the University of Essex, in collaboration with collleagues from UCL, has been looking at trends in social media interaction and well-being in nearly 10,000 10-15 year-olds in the UK over a 5 year period. Their findings indicate that girls may be at greater risk and therefore a focus for those looking to intervene to protect and promote children’s happiness.

The Government’s inquiry into the impact of social media on the health of young people comes hard on the heels of a report from the Children’s Commissioner for England, which says that children between the ages of 8 and 12 find it hard to manage the impact of online life and become anxious about their identity as they crave ‘likes’ and comments for validation. 

An explosion in digital and social media platforms has revolutionised the way we all consume media with a recent report showing that young people aged 12-15 spending more time online than they do watching TV. Indeed, it seems a long time ago that parents’ prime concern around media was how much or what kind of TV their child was watching.

All these major developments have taken place at a time when we also know that young people are becoming less and less happy. In the most recent United Nations Children’s Fund report, UK adolescents are ranked in the bottom third on overall well-being, below Slovenia, the Czech Republic and Portugal.

Of course, it’s important to remember that the internet has done a great deal of good for children: connecting them with friends and family who may be far away, providing great opportunities to widen horizons and learn new things. These things have been shown in other studies to be linked with increased levels of happiness and well-being in children

On the negative side, social media use has been linked with obesity, cyberbullying, low self-esteem and lack of physical activity, all things that can affect the lives of children as they move through school and into adulthood and work.

Social media experiences

Young people who took part in the Understanding Society survey, were asked if they belonged to a social web-site and then how many hours they spent ‘chatting’ or ‘interacting with friends’ on a normal school day. They could select a range of responses from none to more than 7 hours.

At age 10, 50 per cent of girls and 55 per cent of boys said they had no internet access or spent no time on social media. At 15 years, this dropped to 8 and 10 per cent respectively.

Ten per cent of ten year old girls reported spending one to three hours a day (compared with 7 per cent of boys) and this increased to 43 per cent of girls at age 15 (and 31 per cent of boys).

At age 10 only a very small percent of girls/boys were spending 4 hours plus a day on social media. But by the age of 15, that rose to 16 per cent of girls and 10 percent of boys.

Levels of happiness 🙂 🙁

Young people who took part in the survey were asked about satisfaction with schoolwork, friends, family, appearance, school and life as a whole and this was used to create an overall happiness score for them.

They were also asked about any social and emotional difficulties they might be facing using the well-established Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ) with a higher score indicating more problems.

For both boys and girls, levels of happiness decreased between the ages of 10 and 15, however the decrease was greater for girls than for boys. Additionally, whilst SDQ scores increased for girls between the ages of 10 and 15, they decreased for boys.

10 year-old girls who spent an hour or more on a school day chatting online had higher SDQ scores (more social and emotional problems) than girls of the same age who spent less or no time on social media. In addition, the score (number of problems) increased as they got older.

Why the gender difference?

So why the gender difference? This is hard to unpick and not something we were able to look at specifically in our research. It may say something about the different ways that girls and boys interact with social media. For example, girls may be more likely than boys to compare their lives with those of friends and peers – whether those are ‘filtered’ selfies or positive posts about friendships, relationships or material possessions – these could lead to feelings of inadequacy, lower levels of satisfaction and poorer wellbeing.

The pressures associated with having peers like or ‘approve’ status updates and a perceived fall in or lack of popularity could add further pressure at, what for many teenagers is a tricky time in their lives.

Boys are more likely to be gaming than interacting online in the way just described and that wasn’t covered in this research, so it’s possible that changes in well-being may be more related to gaming success or skill.

What needs to change?

It’s clear that social media is no short-lived phenomenon and our research indicates that girls, possibly because of the way in which they interact online and the amount of time they spend doing so could be at greater risk.

In her report, A Life of Likes, the Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield has called for more to be done to check and stop underage use and to prevent children becoming over dependent on likes and comments and “adapting their offline lives to fit an online image”, something she believes can lead to an anxiety about ‘keeping up appearances ‘ as they get older.

Our research really adds weight to recent calls for the technology industry to look at in-built time limits. Young people need access to the internet for homework, for watching TV and to keep in touch with their friends of course, but a body of evidence is emerging to show that substantial amounts of time spent chatting, sharing, liking and comparing on social media on school days is far from beneficial especially for girls.

Gender differences in the association between age trends of social media interaction and wellbeing among 10-15 year olds in the UK, is research by Cara Booker (University of Essex), Yvonne Kelly (University College London) and Amanda Sacker (University College London) and is published in BMC Public Health.

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.

 

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.

Girls growing up – questions of early puberty

The early onset of puberty in girls has been linked with better bone health in older women, but it is also associated with a host of negative outcomes including teenage pregnancy and serious ill health in mid-life. With girls over the last few decades starting their periods earlier and earlier, this is a real cause for concern. A better understanding is needed of who is affected and how if this trend is to be reversed and the long-term health of girls and women is to be secured. Researchers at the ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies at UCL have investigated whether a girl’s socioeconomic background or ethnicity are associated with early puberty and have looked in detail at more commonly supposed links with weight and stress. Yvonne Kelly explains more.

Sexual activity whilst still young, teenage pregnancy, mental health problems, heart disease and breast cancer later in life are just some of the things linked to early puberty in girls. Over the last few decades, girls have started their periods earlier and earlier (in 2016 at around age 11, according to the NHS).

This research is the first to look over time at whether and how a girl’s social and economic circumstances and her ethnicity might be linked to the early onset of puberty. We suspected that any link that did emerge would, most likely, be explained away by other factors such as being overweight or suffering from stress.

Using information on 5,839 girls from the Millennium Cohort Study, which has been tracking the lives of nearly 20,000 children born at or around the start of the century, it was possible to know, at age 11 whether they had started their period or not.

Details of their birth weight, ethnicity, family income when they were aged 5 and height and weight when they were 7 were also available. This rich information gathered across 11 years of the girls’ lives really enabled us to put together a detailed picture over time of how these factors come together to influence the early onset of puberty.

The girls’ mothers completed questionnaires any social or emotional problems their daughter might be facing, and their own mental health.

Puberty facts and figures

Nearly one in ten of the girls, a total of 550, had started their period at age 11, with girls from the poorest families twice as likely as their most well-off peers to have done so (14.1 per cent v 6.8 per cent). Those from the second poorest group were also nearly twice as likely to have started their period.

Indian, Bangladeshi and Black African girls were most likely to have started their period at age 11, with Indian girls three and a half times more likely than their White counterparts to have done so.

Other factors

On average, girls who were heavier at age 7 and suffered stress in early childhood were more likely to have begun menstruating. Those who had started their periods early also tended to have mothers with higher stress levels, were from single parent families, and tended to have had some social and emotional difficulties themselves.

However, even when we took all these things into account, girls from the poorest and second poorest groups were still one and a half times more likely to have started their periods early.

As far as ethnicity was concerned, income, excess body weight and stress accounted for part or all of the differences in most cases. Interestingly, though with most Indian girls coming from more advantaged backgrounds than their White peers, the likelihood of them having started their period was not explained after we took all the above factors into account.

Lived experiences

Our findings highlight the different lived experiences of ethnic minority groups in the UK: for example Indians are relatively advantaged whereas Pakistanis tend to be materially disadvantaged, Bangladeshis and Black Africans are materially and psychosocially disadvantaged and have a tendency to be overweight compared with the majority ethnic group. They also demonstrate the complex and potentially opposing factors at play for the onset of puberty.

All that considered, we can say with considerable confidence that socioeconomic and ethnic disparities are indeed apparent in the UK. Given the short and long term implications for early puberty on women’s health and well being, improving our understanding of these underlying processes could help identify opportunities for interventions with benefits right across the lifecourse, not just for the girls in our study, but for future generations.

It was also encouraging to note that in the decade or so covered by the data we used, there appears to have been no further decline in the average age that girls begin puberty.

Early puberty in 11-year-old girls: Millennium Cohort Study findings is research by Yvonne Kelly, Afshin Zilanawala, Amanda Sacker, Robert Hiatt andRussell Viner and is published in Archives of Disease in Childhood.

Photo credit: Afla