Schools can play a vital role in encouraging healthy behaviours in youths, a new study from the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) finds.
Young people’s health behaviours — whether they smoke, drink alcohol, eat healthily and exercise frequently — varies significantly depending on the secondary school and, to a lesser extent, the primary school attended.
But it is not the schools' sports facilities or healthy eating policies that most impact young people’s health choices but how engaged those students feel in the school and how positive their relationships are with teachers.
Negative interaction with teachers and disaffection from school are associated with greater levels of drinking and smoking in particular among almost 5,000 17-year-olds whose data was examined in this study. Socioeconomic factors also have a significant impact on youths' healthy behaviours.
Young women are more likely to fall into the unhealthy smoker/drinker grouping than young males. And young females are especially likely to have an unhealthy diet and low levels of physical activity.
Young people from working-class backgrounds are more likely to smoke or drink alcohol while those whose mothers have lower levels of education (Leaving Certificate or less) are more likely to have a poor diet and low levels of physical activity.
Parental health behaviour also makes a difference with higher rates of drinking and smoking among young people whose parents are occasional or regular smokers.
Aspects of personality, self-image and coping strategies are also found to influence young people’s health behaviours. Those who were drinkers/smokers at age 17 were more likely to display conduct problems when they were younger (at nine and 13). This group tended to socialise with older peers in adolescence, though had poorer quality relations with these friends.
Young people with poor diet/physical activity showed signs of being more socially isolated, having greater peer problems, considering themselves less popular and physically attractive, and having less interaction with their teachers when younger.
While school policy examined had little substantive impact, unhealthy drinking/ smoking is less evident if the school emphasises physical education and sports and where students are given a greater say in school life.
Using data from the Growing up in Ireland ’98 Cohort at 17 years of age, the research identifies three distinct health behaviour groups.
- A ‘healthy’ group (43%) who do not smoke, drink rarely, engaged in exercise on six or more days in the previous fortnight and has the best quality diet.
- An ‘unhealthy diet and physical activity’ group (36%), who do not smoke, drink alcohol rarely (monthly or less) but have the worst levels of physical activity (1-2 days in the previous fortnight) and has the poorest dietary quality.
- An ‘unhealthy smokers and drinkers’ group (21%), who have the highest level of alcohol consumption, smoke daily or occasionally, have moderate to low levels of physical activity and poor to moderate diets.
Anne Nolan, one of the report authors, said: “The study findings show us that health behaviours are interconnected. Measures to promote both school engagement and a more positive school climate, while important for educational outcomes, are likely to have positive spill-overs for other aspects of young people’s lives, including health behaviours.”