Examining healthy behaviours in youth

Examining healthy behaviours in youth

New survey reveals concerns about the mental health of girls and new types of risk behaviours reported by young people in Canada.

By Anne Craig

June 24, 2020


A group of school-age children run outside a school.
The Health Behaviour in School-aged Children survey is administered to students in Grades 6 to 10 from across the country. (Supplied Photo)

Findings from the 2018 Health Behaviour in School-aged Children survey (HBSC) show that mental health, home life and social media use each play an important role in the health of young people. Queen’s University researchers Wendy Craig (Psychology) and William Pickett (Public Health Scienceswere co-principal investigators on this Canada-wide study. 

For the last 25 years, Health Behaviour in School-aged Children (HBSC) has been a unique source of information in Canada, describing the health experiences of young Canadians and the social contexts that impact their health. 

In Canada, the survey is administered to students in Grades 6 to 10 from across the country. It is coordinated by the Social Program Evaluation Group (SPEG) at Queen’s University, and researchers from Queen's University, the University of British Columbia, McGill University, McMaster University, the University de Montreal, the University of Prince Edward Island, the University of Waterloo, and the Public Health Agency of Canada collaborate on this ongoing study.  The survey team is part of an international network of like researchers, organized in Europe and affiliated with the World Health Organization.

When we as researchers are studying the health of young people, their voices and ideas are important, and are in fact protected by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child," says William Pickett (Public Health Sciences). "While the themes that emerged from the HBSC survey findings are of great interest to us as researchers, so too are the views of young people, and their priorities.

Four key themes emerged from this year’s survey: 

  • First, the mental health and relationships of Grade 9 and 10 girls are of great concern. Girls in Grades 9 and 10 are consistently reporting the most negative health experiences. For example, they have the highest reported levels of issues like feeling hopeless, sad, nervous, and having low confidence, all symptoms of mental health problems.  
  • Second and more positivelythe majority of students in Canada report having a happy home life. They also report positive relationships with their parents and feel that they are generally understood by them.  
  • Third, profiles of risk-taking behaviours are changing. While young people report less engagement in many forms of risk-taking (e.g., cigarette smoking, sexual intercourse), engagement in other types of risk-taking and negative health behaviours are on the rise. One clear example is vaping, or e-cigarette use, which is now reported by about one in four young people by Grade 10. 
  • Fourth, social media use is a growing public health issue including addiction. Although social media can be used in positive ways to communicate, connect and engage with others, it can also be used negatively to engage in cyberbullying or teen dating violence. 

Understanding the experiences of young people is critical to ensure that they have the supports that they need to thrive and be successful," says Wendy Craig (Psychology).

In addition to the survey findings, researchers also asked young Canadians themselves about the issues that they felt were most influential on their health. Some of these paralleled the survey findings, and others were new. Gender, gender norms, and their impacts on health were on the top of young people’s list of themes. Illustrative examples included gendered ideals of body shapes and sizes and differing social expectations on boys and girls associated with physical activity, mental and spiritual health, and aggression.  

A second theme identified by youth surrounded the transition from childhood to young adulthood, and its perceived impacts on health and well-being. Such transitions were a source of worry to young people and had notable impacts on their self-confidence and sense of well-being, as young people navigated their disconnections from traditional adult supports as they themselves moved towards adulthood 

Like the survey findings, young people also emphasized the existence of both positive and negative aspects of technology in their lives, and the need for balance in the use of technology. And that social media was important to them. 

The survey was administered to about 22,000 students from across Canada. The study was conducted in collaboration with the World Health Organization (WHO) internationally and with the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) nationally. 

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