The fourth Irish Health Behaviour in School-aged Children Survey is a large study designed to examine the health of 10- to 17-year-olds in the Republic. As such, it offers a valuable insight into issues such as food consumption, alcohol and drug use and smoking in children and adolescents. The study is a cross-sectional study conducted in collaboration with the World Health Organisation regional office for Europe. It runs every four years; the Irish arm is carried out by the Health Promotion Research Centre at NUI Galway.
How does the 2010 survey compare with the previous studies? Generally, the news is good, with no significant worsening of risky health behaviours. In the case of smoking, the results are very encouraging. However, rates of drunkenness are almost static since the first survey in 1998. And levels of physical activity could improve, with just half of schoolchildren saying they exercised four or more times a week in 2010, which is actually a significant drop since the first survey. The numbers who admitted they had bullied others two or more times in the past couple of months has shown a significant drop from a quarter to 16 per cent.
This is a welcome improvement from the three previous surveys when bullying had remained stubbornly unchanged. And the high proportion of children reporting high life satisfaction and being happy, fundamental aspects of childhood, has increased over the years.
Interestingly there was a significant increase between 2002 and 2010 in the percentage of young people who reported they were on a diet. A higher percentage of girls and older children said they were dieting, while there was also an increase in boys who reported being on a diet. It is not clear if this finding reflects a response to rising obesity levels.
While social class difference is unremarkable for some of the health parameters studied, it still exists when it comes to the consumption of fruit. Children of professional parents are more likely to eat fruit more than once a day than children in lower socio-economic groups 5 and 6.
There is a message here for policymakers: if we are to address the relatively high rates of cancer and cardiovascular disease in this segment of the population, then new and innovative methods must be found to positively influence the dietary habits of children (and adults) from lower socio-economic groups.