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New Zealand teens’ risky behaviour rates reduced since the 1990s

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Jude BallJude Ball

Overall today’s adolescents are ‘better behaved’ than teens in the 1990s, says a University of Otago, Wellington researcher.

Why this is so remains quite a mystery and the news isn’t necessarily all good.

Jude Ball, a public health research fellow at the University of Otago, Wellington presented her research this week at the Public Health Association’s Conference in Christchurch, focusing on worldwide research exploring how larger-scale social changes may be influencing individual behaviours.

Ms Ball says we don’t fully understand the causes behind declines in adolescent risky behaviours such as smoking, drinking, drug taking and unsafe sex.

“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.

Her research focuses on trends in adolescent behaviour in 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, Italy and Denmark 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 says 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. This and other theories remain largely untested so far,” she says.

“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 by perhaps by pressure to succeed, or by increasing social isolation,” Ms Ball says.

For further information contact:

Ms Jude Ball
Department of Public Health
University of Otago, Wellington
Email: jude.ball@otago.ac.nz

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