Children are abandoning unhealthy habits, but self-harm is still a worry

Children in Ireland are smoking less, drinking less, and communicating with their parents more, according to the latest State of the Nation’s Children report.

However, many still struggle day to day, with more than one in 10 living in poverty and levels of self-harm high — particularly among girls.

The biennial report looks at a wide variety of aspects of children’s lives, including their physical health, educational experiences, emotional well-being, and the support structures they have among family and friends.

This latest edition, which runs to 264 pages, shows that the number of under-18s here is on the increase, growing almost 18% between 2006 and 2016. 

The child population among Travellers and foreign nationals grew most — by 30% and 50% respectively.

Among the findings are that children are abandoning unhealthy habits and are nearing the top of a World Health Organisation league for daily physical activity.

The percentage of children who reported smoking every week fell by half from 11.6% in 2006 to 5.3% in 2014, while those who reported never having smoked rose from 60% in 2002 to 84% in 2014.

Alcohol consumption also fell with the percentage who reported being drunk at least once in the previous month declining from 18% to 10% between 2010 and 2014, while those who said they had never had a drink rose from 47% to 58% between 2006 and 2014.

Cannabis use almost halved in the same period, dropping from 15.7% to 8.8%.

Public health messages about sugary soft drinks seem to be working with the percentage aged 10-17 who reported drinking them at least once a day falling from 26% to 12.6%.

Regarding emotional health, children are opening up to parents more. Almost 83% said it was easy to talk to their mother when something was bothering them compared to 78% in 2002, and there was an increase from 56% to 70% in the percentage who could say the same about their father.

However, while nine out of 10 children said they were happy as they were, that figure plummeted to three out of 10 for girls aged 15-17, while Traveller children, foreign nationals, and those with disabilities or chronic illness also struggled more to accept themselves.

Two and a half times as many girls as boys presented at emergency departments following self-harm, and 14 children aged 10-17 died by suicide in 2015.

A little more than 11% of all children were found to be in consistent poverty and 18.6% were classified as being at risk of poverty.

Children’s Minister Katherine Zappone said the finding caused her concern.

“I believe this to be unacceptable. The reduction of child poverty is a priority of mine,” she said.

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