The number of children who smoke has fallen “significantly” over the last five years, according to a new report.
But the World Health Organisation (WHO) study shows that young people’s health and well-being is being undermined by gender and social inequalities
A Europe wide WHO survey of schoolchildren reveals that the proportion of 15-year-olds who first smoked at the age of 13 has fallen significantly since 2010.
But the report goes on to warn that while 80 per cent of the respondents report generally high rates of life satisfaction, differences between genders and socio-economic status are adversely affecting many young people’s health, well-being and lifestyle choices at a critical stage in their development.
The Health Behaviour in School-aged Children (HBSC) study reveals that the proportion of 15-year-old Europeans who reported having a first cigarette at the age of 13 or younger fell from 24 per cent to 17 per cent between 2009/2010, when the last survey was conducted, and 2013/2014.
The reduction reported among girls - 22 per cent to 13 per cent - was larger than that among boys (26 per cent to 22 per cent).
The report also showed that girls report poorer mental health than boys, and the difference between genders increases with age.
By the age of 15, 20 per cent of girls describe their health as being fair or poor, while one in two (50 per cent) experience multiple health complaints more than once every week.
Overweight and obesity is higher among boys than girls, yet girls are more likely to think that they are fat; this increases with age from 26 per cent at age 11 to 43 per cent by 15.
One in four 15-year-old girls (25 per cent) are on a diet or taking some form of action to lose weight.
The report also shows that eating habits worsen with age: the frequency of eating breakfast, eating fruit and taking meals with family all decrease between the ages of 11 and 15.
By the age of 15 only 29 per cent of boys eat fruit daily compared to 37 per cent of 15-year-old girls.
Levels of physical activity remain low, with only 25 per cent of 11-year-olds and just 16 per cent of 15-year-olds meeting current guidelines. Girls are persistently less likely than boys to meet currently recommended levels of physical activity.
The study also showed considerable declines in alcohol use since 2009/2010. The proportion of 15-year-olds reporting weekly drinking has fallen from 21 per cent to 13 per cent, while the proportion of 15-year-olds who report having been drunk at least twice fell from 32 per cent to 22 per cent.
Boys are more likely to drink regularly than girls, but the gender gap has reduced in recent years.
Reports of experiencing sexual intercourse have declined for boys and girls since the previous study - down from 29 per cent to 24 per cent for boys and from 23 per cent to 17 per cent for girls.
Boys are more likely to report having had sex than girls, though girls report it more commonly than boys in England and Wales.
The overall prevalence of being bullied was around 12 per cent for boys and 10 per cent for girls, with boys more likely to be bullied and to bully others.
Other aspects of the report reveal that overall life satisfaction decreases slightly as children grow older and that those from lower-income families generally report lower levels of satisfaction.
Data collected for the study are based on surveys completed by thousands of adolescents.
Dr Zsuzsanna Jakab, WHO Regional Director for Europe, said: “Health behaviours and social habits and attitudes acquired in the critical second decade of a young person’s life can carry on into adulthood and affect the entire life-course. “A good start can last a lifetime. Despite considerable advances in adolescent health, such as the welcome reduction in adolescent smoking, many still face huge inequities.
“Girls and children from lower-income families consistently report poorer physical and mental health and lower rates of physical activity than boys and children from more affluent families, for example.
“The data in the HBSC study point us to interventions that can narrow this gap and support the development of positive, lifelong health behaviours.”
The WHO report covers 42 countries in Europe and North America. The results were analysed by 340 researchers supported by the International Coordinating Centre at St Andrews University in Scotland and the Data Management Centre at the University of Bergen in Norway.
Dr Jo Inchley, HBSC International Coordinator and lead editor of the report, said: “The findings highlight large gender disparities in health, which emerge or worsen during the adolescent years.
“While girls are more likely to eat fruit and vegetables and brush their teeth than boys, they report more negative self-perceptions and poorer mental well-being.
“Boys are generally more physically active but also more likely to engage in risky behaviours.”
“Young people from more disadvantaged backgrounds not only report lower levels of health-promoting behaviours and poorer health outcomes but also have fewer social assets such as support from family and friends.”