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Why Are NZ Teen Risky Behaviour Rates Lower than the 1990s?

Why are New Zealand’s teen risky behaviour rates much lower than in the 1990s?

3 October 2017 - Today’s adolescents are ‘better behaved’ than teens in the 1990s overall, but why this is so remains quite a mystery, the Public Health Association Conference in Christchurch heard today.

And the news isn't necessarily all good.

Jude Ball, a public health research fellow at the University of Otago, Wellington, said we don't fully understand the causes behind declines in adolescent risky behaviours such as smoking, drinking, drug taking and unsafe sex.

Ms Ball is writing a thesis about trends in adolescent behaviour and her presentation was about the worldwide research exploring how larger-scale social changes may be influencing individual behaviours.

She said that while it is difficult to make direct comparisons between countries, it is interesting that there have been almost simultaneous and major declines across a range of countries and behaviours – and across all main ethnic and socioeconomic groups as well.

Her research focuses on New Zealand, Australia, the US and England, but she says the same declines can be seen in other high-income jurisdictions, but not all – Austria, Denmark and Italy for example.

“It’s not that young people are healthier. They’re not eating better or getting more exercise, and there’s evidence of rising mental health issues.”

She said her research suggests public health interventions like tobacco tax may have played a role in the decline but that the decline similarities across countries, despite different regulatory contexts, suggests broader social forces are at play.

Other hypotheses include that social media is replacing risky behaviours because adolescents can be cool and sociable without drinking, or that gaming, texting and social media means they are less inclined, or have less time, to drink and smoke.

“While this is a popular notion, there’s also a large body of evidence against it. Such theories remain largely untested, so much is still to be learned,” she said.

On the face of it, these trends are really positive from a public health perspective. Risk of long-term harm is greater when kids engage with substances, so reducing and delaying use is important.

“But because the drivers of the decline are largely unknown, we need to be alert to the possibility that rising mental health problems and falling risk behaviours might be two sides of the same coin – driven perhaps by pressure to succeed or by increasing social isolation.”


ENDS


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