Health behaviours survey shows levels of risk taking in youth

The Department of Health have published what they say will be the first in a series of reports into the core health behaviours of target groups for their social marketing strategy.

As you’d expect I’ll focus on what it has to say about the younger people and particularly the group of 11-17 year olds.  But there’s also data on adults and on pregnant women and mothers of under 2 year olds.  Again it won’t be a surprise that the core health behaviours that I’ll pay attention to are around drugs, alcohol and tobacco.

The survey collected data from a nationally representative sample of 608 young people aged 11-17 in England and the baseline data for this group suggests:

  • 9% smoke regularly
  • 23% drink alcohol at least once a month
  • 8% had used cannabis, ecstasy or cocaine in the last 12 months

The report makes clear just how critical social norms are for younger people:

A relatively high proportion of 18-24s (47%) thought that most young people of their age take drugs nowadays, and those thinking that drug use is more common were more likely to take drugs themselves.

Norms were particularly influential in driving behaviours for 11-17s: those perceiving risky behaviours to be common amongst their peer group or perceiving those engaging in risky behaviours to be popular or clever were more likely to report risky behaviours themselves.

They also report that across the groups there is a higher intention to change behaviour to improve on positive health activities (eating more fruit and veg) than in the desire to cut back on risky behaviours (reducing the amount of alcohol consumed).

Young People

The survey finds that there are correlations between risky behaviours – something we at Mentor have explored in our thinkingPrevention series of papers.  In this group the survey reveals:

Intercourse, drug use and cigarette smoking were most closely associated: as a more mainstream activity with a higher prevalence, alcohol consumption was less strongly associated with the other risky behaviours.

They also find that family life has a strong relationship with risky behaviours.  Reporting good family relationships and regular family meals were associated with fewer risky behaviours, while living with a smoker, heavy drinker or drug user were associated with higher likelihood of all risky behaviours.

Prevalence of risky behaviourThey point out that prevalence of risky behaviours rises sharply for the 15 to 17-year-old section of the group.  So while 13% of 13 and 14 year olds drink at least monthly this rises to 44% of 15 to 17 year olds.

They also found that the likelihood of taking part in these behaviours was effected by socio-economic status.

Risk taking by family socio economic status

As can be seen in the chart [left] those 15 to 17 year olds from C2DE households have taken drugs and smoke, while those from ABC1 households were more likely to drink.

Interestingly the vast majority of young people (69%) said they would have no problems in talking to their parents about alcohol.  Slightly fewer thought the same about talking about Big Talksmoking (61%), and just about half (54%) said they’d find it easy to talk about drugs.  This compares to 40% who said that talking about sex and relationships with parents would be easy.  Parents on the other hand were slightly more confident about broaching these subjects.

There seems to be a big difference in whether young people and parents remember these conversations when they take place.  For example, 75% of parents say they’ve had a conversation about drugs, but on 36% of teenagers recall talking about it.

To me this suggests that the strategy that parents need to take is to continue to bring these issues up, rather than leaving it to the ‘one big talk’.

Young Adults

The report does have something to say about the beliefs and behaviours of young adults.

18-24s were less likely than average to agree that more people are stopping smoking nowadays (39%), eating healthily (27%) or cutting back on alcohol (15%).

Half (47%) of 18-24s thought that most people of their age take drugs nowadays, but this far outweighs actual drug use with 18% of 18-24s reporting having personally used any illegal drugs/legal highs in the past 12 months.

young adult health worries

As you can see the report has compiled a visual indicator of the average worry scores amongst those reporting each negative health behaviour, which suggests young adults are   not very worried about their current risky behaviours.

They do caution that there is a low base for drug users so we should take caution with that finding.

They say:

Those identified as increasing or higher risk drinkers were less worried about the impact of their alcohol consumption on their health, though increasing/higher risk drinkers do not commonly perceive themselves as heavy drinkers, and this could go some way to explaining their relative lack of concern.

It will be interesting to see how all of this plays out in the social marketing activity of the department and whether later surveys – we’re promised two a year – show other aspects to what might help young people stay healthy.


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