Study finds adolescents in the United Kingdom feel pressured at school, worry about weight and use too much alcohol

British adolescents feel pressured at school, worry that their body weight is too high and consume too much alcohol, according to an international study. The WHO report finds UK teens are among the least satisfied with their lives compared with their peers around the world.

Researchers who conducted the study of children in 42 countries said 15-year-old girls in England, Wales and Scotland appeared to be at particular risk, suffering from high levels of stress and worries about health.

The World Health Organisation report entitled “Growing up unequal: gender and socioeconomic differences in young people’s health and well-being. Health Behaviour in School-aged Children (HBSC) study: international report from the 2013/2014 survey” is the latest addition to a series of reports on young people’s health from the Health Behaviour in School-aged Children (HBSC) study: a WHO collaborative cross-national study that has provided information about the health, well-being, social environment and health behaviour of 11-, 13- and 15-year-old boys and girls for over 30 years.

Responding to the survey, the young people described their

  1. Social context (relations with family, peers and school),
  2. Health outcomes (subjective health, injuries, obesity and mental health),
  3. Health behaviour (patterns of eating, tooth brushing and physical activity) and
  4. Risk behaviours (use of tobacco, alcohol and cannabis, sexual behaviour, fighting and bullying).
  5. For the first time, the report also includes items on family and peer support, migration, cyberbullying and serious injuries.

On the significance of the report findings, WHO writes:

Young people aged between 11 and 15 years face many pressures and challenges, including growing academic expectations, changing social relationships with family and peers, and the physical and emotional changes associated with maturation. These years mark a period of increased autonomy in which independent decision-making that may influence their health and health- related behaviour develops.

Behaviours established during this transition period can continue into adulthood, affecting issues such as mental health, the development of health complaints, alcohol and tobacco use, physical activity levels and diet. HBSC’s findings show the changes in young people’s health as they move from childhood through adolescence and into adulthood.”

The findings, by example of teenagers in Britain, show how peer pressure ans societal pressure put adolescents at risk.

  • 15-year-olds in England and Wales were among the least likely to report high levels of satisfaction with their lives, with only children from Poland and Macedonia being less satisfied.
  • Teenage boys and girls in England, Scotland and Wales were also among the most stressed at school, with Scottish 15-year-olds feeling most pressured by schoolwork in the UK and coming second only to Malta.
  • Eight out of ten 15-year-old girls in Scotland said they felt pressured by schoolwork, compared with 59% of boys.

Girls at greater danger of mental ill health

The study of almost 220,000 young people across Europe and North America found that girls reported poorer mental health than boys. By the age of 15, 20% of girls described their health as fair or poor, while half experienced multiple health complaints more than once a week.

Obesity is higher among boys, yet girls were more likely to think they were fat, with a quarter of 15-year-old girls being on a diet. In England, 50% of girls and 25% of boys were concerned they were too fat, higher than the international average of 43% for girls and 22% for boys. In Scotland, 55% of girls and 27% of boys said they were too fat, compared with 52% of girls and 30% of boys in Wales.

One UK success story is that rates of weekly alcohol use and smoking have halved in the last decade.

However, the report showed that high rates of alcohol use among British teenagers persist.

  • 33% of 15-year-olds in Scotland having been inebriated twice or more.
  • England is the only country where significantly more girls report getting drunk on more than two occasions than boys: 31% compared with 25%.

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