Teenage health - it's a jungle out there

If your teenage years were decades ago, spare a thought for teenagers today, who have to cope with everything you did and social media as well.


As a rule, I'm not keen on quotes I don't know are accurate - and certainly not credited to more than one person. But as the mother of a teenager there's one that I just keep hearing. Sometimes it was Mark Twain who said it, sometimes Winston Churchill, but the gist is the same: "When I was 16, I thought my parents knew nothing. When I was 21, I was shocked to discover how much they had picked up in the last 5 years."

Being a teenager is no walk in the park. Most people reading this have been there. If your teenage years were decades ago, spare a thought for teenagers today, who have to cope with everything you did and social media as well. This brings with it the risk of cyber-bullying, which you can't escape by closing your bedroom door. And that in turn can lead to low self-esteem, depression and physical health problems such as irritable bowel syndrome.

Sexual experimentation - and the pressure to take part - is hardly new. But social media means that teenagers have access to a much wider group of potential partners than in the past. Most teenagers don't expect to wait until their wedding night to discover the joys of the marital bed. But many don't start off chatting online with a view to meeting up for sex, yet find 'one thing leading to another' all too easily online. The consequences include sexually transmitted infections and unwanted pregnancy.

The accepted messages about alcohol are unlikely to go down well with the average teenager. The Chief Medical Officer advises that young people should avoid all alcohol until the age of 16, and that even after that they're at higher risk than adults drinking the same amount. Although the number of 11- to 15-year-olds who have ever drunk alcohol has been going down since 2003, almost half of them have had alcohol and those who have are drinking twice as much as they were in 1990.(1) Almost 65,000 young people every year need treatment in hospital A&E departments because of alcohol (2) and 36 under-18s were admitted to hospital in England every day in 2009.(3)

Then there's the drugs issue. Statistics vary wildly about whether drugs are more or less freely available than 30 years ago (usually depending on whether it's a politician publishing them or not) but there are certainly more varieties out there. Spotting the signs of drug and alcohol abuse in a teenager isn't as easy as you might think. They include demanding more privacy, moodiness, locking doors to stop parents getting in, spending hours in their bedrooms, not coming home when they're expected and being evasive about where they were. Sounds like the average teenager? It may be more helpful to look for sudden changes - getting into trouble at school for the first time, skipping classes, dropping school performance. Bloodshot eyes, dilated pupils and seeming intoxicated are more specific warning signs.

Whether it's sex, alcohol or drugs that cause you to worry for your teenager's health, it's essential to tread a fine line. Young people are coping with a host of scary new changes and pressures. They're desperately trying to assert their independence, so are unlikely to take kindly to 'interference'. Yet they may secretly be terrified and need to know they're supported.

If you do have your suspicions, be honest with them. Try not to lecture but do explain why you're concerned. Point them in the direction of reliable, teen-friendly websites like: www.healthtalkonline.org/Young_people/ or http://www.talktofrank.com/ to find out more. But most of all - be there for them. One day you may even understand each other again.


1. Ref Smoking, Drinking and Drug Use 2010 - http://www.alcoholconcern.org.uk/consultancy-and-training/resources2/resources/key-stats-and-facts

2. Impact of Alcohol Consumption on Young People - A Systemic Review of Published Preview, Department of Children, Schools and Families (now Department of Education), 2009

3. Ref Lansley, A. (2010) Alcoholic Drinks: Misuse, Parliamentary Question, House of Commons, 2 March 2010

Dr Sarah is unable to provide medical advice or respond directly to questions concerning your health. If you have health concerns we recommend contacting your GP.