Poor body image hurts health of teenagers

Young people are taking steriods, using lip pumps, smoking to lose weight and crash dieting because many are trying to achieve an unrealistic body image, a survey has found.

Many also told researchers that they had self-harmed or had eating disorders related to bullying.

The report was commissioned by the Department of Health and carried out by a team from University College Cork.

The study used group discussions that included games and ballot-box voting to draw out the topics of greatest importance among three age groups.

Among children aged 8 to 12, the most important barriers to a healthy lifestyle were not getting enough sleep, not exercising and not eating enough fruit and vegetables.

Most children reported not drinking enough water and being concerned about the health of parents who smoked.

Among children in the 13 to 17 age range, having an unrealistic body image was the biggest barrier to a healthy lifestyle. The second largest barrier was parents “not being there” or not knowing their children as well as they should.

Some teenagers described “unhealthy practices” including taking steroids, using lip pumps for fuller lips, smoking to lose weight and crash dieting.

They said that their perceptions of the ideal body were influenced by celebrities, models and sports figures, as well as clothes retailers, social media and peer groups.

The teenagers also said that social, personal, and health education classes did not teach a healthy lifestyle, and claimed that SPHE teachers were not adequately trained for their job.

Healthier options in school canteens and physical education that suited everyone’s needs would be a positive step in achieving a healthier lifestyle, the children surveyed said.

The report found that communication, especially parents who were open and wanted to talk could help children to express their thoughts and feelings.

There was little data available for the 0 to 5 age range, but children showed an awareness of the association between being outdoors and feeling good.

Katherine Zappone, the children’s minister, said that she welcomed the research and was committed to including the input of children and young people in decision-making.

“There is a growing body of evidence on the benefits of giving children and young people a voice in decisions that affect their lives,” she said.

“Considerable cultural change is needed so that we think of children as citizens of today with the right to be respected and heard throughout childhood.”