Youngsters scared of going hungry

High school children are increasingly well-behaved, drink and smoke less, drive more carefully, and get into fewer fights.

But they are finding it harder to get after-school work, and many still suffer from depression, self- harm and poverty, an Auckland University report shows.

They are also more likely than in previous years to worry about whether their parents can afford to feed them, and to live in overcrowded houses.

In other areas, little progress had been made in the past 12 years. More than one-third of children reported themselves overweight or obese, and nearly one in four reported "deliberate self- harm" in the past 12 months.

Theresa Fleming, one of the report's lead researchers, said one of the most shocking figures was that half of all 13-year-olds worried about their parents paying for the food on the table.

"People think these problems exist for people on benefits or low incomes, but it's much wider now," she said.

On a more positive note, improvements in adolescent behaviour showed big campaigns to limit and marginalise undesirable behaviour, such as smoking and drinking, had been effective.

"It's pretty hard to find somewhere you can drink in public as a teenager now," Dr Fleming said. "That wasn't the case 10 years ago."

The findings also contradicted some commentary that New Zealand's youth were becoming increasingly violent, she said.

The report is based on a 2012 survey of 8500 students from years nine to 13. It is the third Health and Wellbeing of New Zealand Secondary School Students report, with the first conducted in 2001.

Since then the number of teenagers who have smoked a cigarette has more than halved to fewer than one in four, with a similar drop in the prevalence of drinking and cannabis consumption.

They were also smaller drops in the number of teenagers involved in a fight - about 14 per cent in the past 12 months - or driving drunk: fewer than 4 per cent.

Dr Fleming said that although the gains should be celebrated, many of the findings linked to poverty were worrying.

The lack of contraceptive use - with about half of sexually active teens confessing to unprotected sex - and the prevalence of suicide and depression also made for grim reading. "There are improvements, but this is still shocking stuff."

Onslow College in Johnsonville is one of more than 90 schools that participated in the survey, and principal Peter Leggat said the findings rang true.

Student behaviour had improved in the past few years, but there was also a growing stress on many, arising partly from economic pressures, he said. "I think the figures on mental health, especially, are shocking."

Porirua College principal Susanne Jungersen agreed that drinking, violence and drug use were on the decline in schools, despite the economic pressures on families.

Association of Counsellors school counselling portfolio leader Sarah Maindonald said one reason for improvements was growing acceptance among teenagers about seeking help. However, other problems arising from poverty were harder to solve.

The Dominion Post