National youth wellbeing research highlights the impacts of increasing poverty

Polly Peek
A summary of the ‘Youth ‘12’ research carried out by the Adolescent Health Research Group based at Auckland University has recently been released, showing a number of positive health and social wellbeing factors improving for New Zealand teens, but also revealing concerning increases in poverty-related issues.

The ‘Health and Wellbeing of Secondary School Students in New Zealand’ survey, conducted by the Adolescent Health Research Group based at Auckland University, has been completed three times in the last ten years, resulting in the ‘Youth ‘02’, ‘Youth ‘07’ and, most recently, ‘Youth ‘12’ reports.

Randomly selected high schools are approached to take part in the study, which covers topics include ethnic identity and culture, family relationships, school, injuries and violence, health and healthcare, emotional health, food and eating, leisure activities, sexual health, alcohol, smoking and other drugs, and community involvement.

A portion of students enrolled with the school are invited to complete the comprehensive questionnaire which “allows us to take an ecological approach to identifying the risks and protective factors in young people’s lives”. In total, about 3% of the New Zealand secondary school population are involved.

Because questions are kept consistent in each survey, comparisons are able to be made across time, showing what aspects of youth health and wellbeing are improving or getting worse, and allowing for further research to expand on the findings.

A summary of the Youth ’12 study was released recently and has shown some interesting results. It points to the role that government policy and the economic climate have in shaping young people’s material conditions and wellbeing outcomes.

Where funding has been allocated for on-going health promotion campaigns and accessible support, New Zealand teenagers’ wellbeing has improved significantly from the initial Youth ’02 study to today.

Use of drugs, alcohol and cigarettes have decreased for youth, as has dangerous and drunk driving. Experience of physical violence, sexual abuse and fighting are also declining and fewer students are reporting having made a suicide attempt.

In terms of protective factors, more students are feeling safe at school and that their teachers and other adults are fair and care about them. More students are wearing seatbelts and increasing numbers are getting regular exercise.

Despite overall increases to many areas of health and wellbeing, there are some worrying trends visible, particularly in areas where young people are vulnerable to the impact of economic conditions and public spending cuts.
Young people today are reporting being able to spend less time with their families, and having less of a sense of wellbeing and more depressive symptoms. They are much less likely to have part time work than teenagers five or ten years ago and are considerably less able to access a doctor or other healthcare support. The research also shows decrease in condom use, quite possibly related to this healthcare inaccessibility.

The most concerning change in students’ lives, however, is the inability of their families to afford food. Between 2002 and 2012 there has been a startling 49% increase in young people reporting that their parents worry about having money for food.

The political and economic climate has changed considerably in the last ten years. Following the global financial crisis of 2008 today’s youth are growing up in an environment of high unemployment and significant social welfare restructuring, as well as other cuts to public services.

One important thing that the Health and Wellbeing studies have highlighted is the sensitivity of young people to their environments. Where funding has been invested in health promotion and support, young people have thrived in otherwise challenging situations. Where the market has been allowed to impact on youth un-buffered, aspects of young people’s wellbeing have been significantly affected.

These findings call into question some of the stereotypes we often associate with young people, such as engaging in risky behaviour and being inherently disinterested in their health and wellbeing, willing to compromise on these for short-term enjoyment.

These stereotypes, while having something of a base in youth development theory, are problematic and can serve an ideological function – obscuring the fact that with good publicly funded health education and services, and an economy that enables people to work and earn more than subsistence wages, young people are bound to do incredibly well.

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