Saturday 19 October 2019

Dr Helen McAvoy: 'Boys to men: we must work harder to help our youngsters grow into healthy adults'

Healthy outlook: Boys are looking after their health more, but there are challenges
Healthy outlook: Boys are looking after their health more, but there are challenges

Dr Helen McAvoy

Boyhood and the traditional notions of masculinity are changing. This is good news, especially for parents and the health and wellbeing of boys.

Over the last two decades, there is a shift towards more boys looking after their own health. Around four in 10 rate their health as excellent and these ratings are improving over time.

Given we are in the middle of the stressful exam season, it is comforting to know more boys than ever find it easy to talk to their parents about things that really bother them.

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Around eight in every 10 aged between 10 and 17 report feeling at ease with talking to their mum in this situation.

There's also good news for dads, with three in four being comfortable opening up to their dad. Just half of boys in 1998 felt they could talk to their dad about things that bothered them.

Bullying among schoolchildren is also changing. Research from the Growing Up in Ireland Study found 13-year-old boys are no more likely than girls of the same age to report being bullied.

The number of boys reporting they had taken part in bullying has halved since 1998.

This decline is far more impressive than seen among girls, suggesting a sea-change in the sometimes harsh socialisation of boys in the school environment.

A reduced propensity for bullying others is a promising sign of change in the way boys are choosing to express themselves and a welcome challenge to the relentless negative stereotyping of adolescent male behaviour.

There are more glimpses of change in the way they look after their own bodies and the risks they take.

The proportion taking care of their teeth rose 14pc between 1998 and 2014. Boys were significantly less likely than girls to report seatbelt use 20 years ago, but figures now show no discernible gender difference.

Despite the evidence of positive changes in boys' health behaviours, there are significant challenges.

Many are living with being overweight and obesity, and at the same time there is an increase in dieting behaviours which points to an unhealthy food environment.

They are increasingly struggling with issues of poor body image and weight stigma at a time when they are navigating puberty, changing friend and family relationships and the demands of school.

Targeted marketing by food and beverage companies is constant. Seductive images of young men infused with themes of strength, physical mastery, risk taking and bravery with just a hint of sexual prowess present a heady mix for any teen.

These global giants have significant access to young boys online and via social media and gaming platforms, culturing brand loyalty for everything from pizza to energy drinks. At the same time as being sold junk food, boys are repeatedly exposed to unrealistic images of muscular body types and intimate relationships.

Alongside this, alcohol marketing is priming them for consumption, not least through their extensive marketing of male-dominated sports.

This is of particularly concern in light of high levels of heavy, episodic drinking in young men which occurs both below and above the legal age of purchase.

Courtesy of Ireland's progressive tobacco laws, most boys will have grown up without seeing tobacco advertised on billboards or television and many will never have experienced smoke-filled cinemas or restaurants. Fewer children than ever before are starting to smoke, which is surely one of Ireland's greatest public health achievements.

However, boys seem to be more likely to try their first cigarette at a younger age than girls, with 13pc reporting they had smoked by 11 years old compared to nearly 8pc of girls.

Although Marlboro Man has long since passed on, has smoking somehow held on to its masculine associations?

There are many reasons to be positive in terms of the improvements in boys' health and health behaviours.

Over time, their ability to take care for some aspects of their health and their ability to open up, at least with their parents, seems to be improving.

Changing notions of masculinity may mean the experience of bullying, physical fights and learning to develop a "stiff upper lip" may no longer be part of the schoolboy's rite of passage.

From a broader perspective little if any progress has been made in narrowing the health gap between boys growing up in socially advantaged and disadvantaged circumstances. Poverty remains a common and toxic exposure in terms of childhood health and development, but it leaves different scars on boys and girls.

There is so much more we need to understand about the lives of boys. It's International Men's Health Week from today until Friday and the theme is "make the time, take the time".

To build on the good work, we have to make the time to create a better Ireland to support boys as they transition to manhood.

Dr Helen McAvoy is director of policy with the Institute of Public Health, an all-island organisation supporting the development of policies, research and programmes to reduce health inequalities and improve the health of the population

Irish Independent

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