The mental health of secondary school-aged children has worsened over the past four years, according to the latest Health Behaviour in School-aged Children (HBSC) in England National Report, which has been released today.
The study, hosted by the University of Hertfordshire in collaboration with the World Health Organization, captures data on the health, health behaviours and social environment of young people aged 11, 13 and 15 every four years.
The report found that over a fifth of young people had experienced a high level of emotional problems during the last six months of the study. There was also a substantial increase (25%) in the number of 15-year-olds who had felt low at least once a week since 2014 (40% vs 50%).
A decline in the emotional well-being of boys was also reflected in data on self-harm; 25% of 15-year-olds reported ever self-harming, with boys reporting a greater increase since 2014 (11% vs. 16%) than girls (32% vs. 35%).
Young people were also asked about their relationship with social media and gaming. The report found that one in 10 have a problematic relationship with social media, with girls (14%) more likely than boys (9%) to report problematic use. It was most common among 13 and 15-year-old girls. Over a third (37%) of 15-year-old girls said they contacted their close friends through electronic communication ‘almost all the time throughout the day’.
‘Disordered game use’ is also an emerging issue, with 14% of young people identified as showing signs of ‘disordered game use’, with boys over twice as likely as girls (19% boys vs. 7% girls). Disordered gaming was identified through questions which asked young people about their relationship with online gaming and, whether it caused them to neglect other activities or resulted in conflict with others.
Around three quarters (76%) of young people reported gaming at least once a week (including on smartphones, tablets, computers or games consoles). Boys (92%) were far more likely than girls (60%) to play games every week.
The report also found that over a quarter (27%) of young people are not getting enough sleep to feel awake and concentrate on school work, a considerable increase from 2014 (22%). This was more common among girls (32%) than boys (23%), with older adolescents considerably more likely to report not getting enough sleep (with up to 42% of 15-year-olds).
However, risk behaviours have continued to decrease. Incidences of regular smoking and drinking has decreased dramatically from 2002 to 2018, with only very few young people reporting that they had smoked (3%) or consumed alcohol (7%) at least three times during the last 30 days. One fifth (21%) of 15-year-olds said that they had ever tried cannabis, a substantial decrease since 2002 (41%).
Dr Ellen Klemera, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Hertfordshire, said: ‘Research on adolescent health has highlighted how important the second decade of life is for health and wellbeing, which is why this continued decline of emotional well-being is really worrying.
‘Although there are far less reported incidences of risk behaviours, young people are facing a multitude of different challenges that other generations have not really experienced, such as the prominence of smartphones and social media. These can have a negative impact on well-being, particularly if they are exposed to cyberbullying or if it affects their sleep.”
Martin Weber, Programme Manager for Child and Adolescent Health and Development at World Health Organisation Regional Office for Europe, said: ‘The mental health of young people is as important as their physical health.
‘The new HBSC report gives us a good insight into the problems young adolescents face and the effect it has on their health. Increase in sleep difficulties, feeling low and self-harm are just some of the issues that need to be addressed.’
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