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Children’s Unhappiness Linked to Risk of Alcohol Use, Sexual Activity

Several studies have shown that intervening with troubled youth is the best strategy to prevent future mental health disorders or substance abuse problems in adulthood. Most chronic behavioral and psychiatric disorders—including alcoholism, depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, and schizophrenia—can be rooted in adverse events that are experienced during childhood, yet children who are generally most in need of treatment rarely receive it.

A new study by researchers at John Moores University’s Centre for Public Health, Liverpool may help explain why at-risk youth are not receiving adequate outreach. According to researchers, children with a poor outlook toward school or home—where adolescent interventions are most likely to take place—have the strongest ties to risky alcohol use and sexual activity. Specifically, a child’s increasingly poor wellbeing towards school and home life is directly associated with their increased likelihood to participate in risky behavior.

Due to recent growths in the rates of adolescent binge drinking and pregnancies across the UK, researcher Penelope Phillips-Howard and her team were concerned about adolescent overall wellbeing. Even though much effort has been focused on improving children’s quality of life through school programs, the effectiveness of these programs on reducing adolescent drinking and sexual activity has not been extensively reviewed. Adolescent alcohol use and risky sexual behavior, however, are two of the leading indications of poor wellbeing among adolescents.

In a multi-school analysis, researchers sought to identify the relationships between childhood alcohol use, sexual activity, and wellbeing in general. Using a cross-sectional survey, the researchers polled 3,641 students from the North West England region who were between the ages of 11 and 14 years of age. The students chosen for the study were about to attend a pilot program on sex and relationship education, and were asked to complete the questionnaire prior to their participation. The questionnaire required students to self-report on their own alcohol use and sexual activity, as well as their overall satisfaction with life including self-image, self esteem, parental nurturing, family relationships, attitude towards school, emotional bonds with teachers, adherence to rules, and social attitudes. Rather than just assessing the relationship between students’ propensities for risky activity, the researchers also assessed the relationships among students’ risky activity and their behavioral health.

The study found that children with a dislike towards school life were substantially more likely to consume alcohol and two and half times more likely to engage in sexual activity than students who expressed positive feelings towards school. According to researchers, children as young as 13 years old were admitting to both drinking alcohol and engaging in sex. Overall, the rate of alcohol consumption increased with the children’s age—starting with one-third of 11-year-olds and steadily rising to two-thirds of 14-year-olds. Also, the frequency of the adolescent’s alcohol use strongly predicted their likelihood to engage in sexual activity. Children who drank alcohol one or more times a week were 12 times more likely to engage in sexual activity, and 10 times more likely to have had sex. However, children who reported having positive feelings towards school life had the lowest rates of ever having consumed alcohol, occasional alcohol use, sexual activity, or sex. Even those children who engaged in low to moderate levels of alcohol consumption had significantly higher rates of sexual activity than non-drinkers.

What stood out in their findings, the researchers report, is that children who were more likely to have higher levels of alcohol use or sexual behavior were also the most likely to have poorer attitudes towards school and home life. Because of growing dislike for their family situation or their academic environment, these children are more likely to drift towards alcohol use or risky sex, leading to such consequences as unplanned pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases, alcohol-related injuries, and similar forms of self-harm. Providing support to these high-risk children is further complicated since traditional parental or school interventions are not reaching through to them.

In order to circumvent this lack of effective outreach, the researchers suggest that integrated public health programs that target the wellbeing of school-age children be implemented through public policy. Not only should steps be taken in academic settings to ensure young students’ quality of life, but policy regarding underage drinking and sexual education should also be incorporated into the effort to reduce children’s exposure to risky behaviors.

The researchers’ new study is available online in the open access journal Substance Abuse, Treatment, Prevention and Policy.

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