Fewer schoolchildren drinking, smoking or having sex, study finds

Concern over bullying and drop in life satisfaction among girls


Anti-smoking campaign amongst young people in West Dunbartonshire.

Fewer children in Ireland are drinking, smoking, having sex or taking drugs, according to a major study on the health of school-aged children.

The study shows almost two-thirds – 64% – of children reported that they have never had an alcoholic drink, an increase of 6 percentage points since the last report in 2014.

However, there is a slight drop in life satisfaction and happiness – especially among girls – and an increase in the proportion of children who have been bullied.

The findings are contained in a survey of 15,500 children during 2018 from more than 250 primary and secondary schools.

The Health Behaviours in School-aged Children 2018 Study was carried out by researchers at NUI Galway and forms part of a wider World Health Organisation study into the health of children across the globe.

The study shows almost two-thirds – 64 per cent – of children reported that they have never had an alcoholic drink, an increase of six percentage points since the last report in 2014.

Of those children who reported ever having had alcohol, just over half received it from a parent, guardian, sibling or reported taking alcohol from the family home, while a further 30 per cent sourced it from friends.

The study also shows 11 per cent of children aged 10 to 17 have tried smoking, a five percentage-point drop from 2014. However, some 22 per cent reported trying e-cigarettes.

There is also a reduction in the number of 15-17-year-olds who reported having sexual intercourse, down 3 percentage points to 24 per cent.

Of those who reported having had intercourse, use of the birth control pill fell to 29 per cent in 2018, while 64 per cent reported using condoms.

Bullying emerges as an area of growing concern, with 30 per cent reporting having been bullied in the past couple of months, up from 25 per cent in 2014. While there is alarm over bullying online, only 16 per cent reported having been a victim of cyber-bullying.

On a related note, there was a four percentage-point drop in children saying they were “very happy” with life to 43 per cent compared to 2014, with girls significantly less likely to report being very happy than boys.

Prof Saoirse Nic Gabhainn, who led the NUIG research team, said the findings demonstrated continued improvement in some areas of child health and well-being, but also highlighted key areas where action was required at school, family and community levels.

“It is vital to respond decisively to the high rates of e-cigarette use and the stubborn bullying patterns illustrated in this report,” she said.

The study, funded by the Department of Health, also contains information on physical activity and the consumption of sugary sweets and drinks.

While just over half of children report exercising four or more times a week, 9 per cent of 10-17-year-olds report being physically inactive. Both figures are static since 2014 and are broadly in line with the findings of other studies.

In the area of food, consumption of sweets and sugar-sweetened drinks was down by six percentage points.

Minister for Health Simon Harris said the findings showed many positive trends in health behaviours in children, as well highlighting some areas of concern.

But he said he was concerned over the number of teenagers trying e-cigarettes and vaping products. “This will be addressed by measures I will introduce in 2020, including new legislation to ban the sale of e-cigarettes to children under the age of 18.”

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