January 25, 2005

Surveys show 'tweens' are tuned into health issues

by Pete Rosenbery

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Life is more than movies, video games and sports for nine- to 13-year- olds.

Research conducted by health education experts at Southern Illinois University Carbondale over the past year shows kids in this age group – commonly referred to as "tweens" – have very real concerns and opinions when it comes to a variety of issues, including bullying, alcohol, obesity, children's worries and health literacy.

David A. Birch, a professor and chair of SIUC's Department of Health Education and Recreation, noted that national health surveys rarely reflect the opinions of members of this age group. These surveys, however, give kids the chance to share their views on health issues affecting them.

For a second year, Birch and assistant professor Stephen L. Brown are developing the surveys and will collect and analyze data gleaned from children across the United States. The results can provide insight for future program and school health education curriculum development, Birch said.

"What we want to do is not only provide a voice to these kids but provide the voice in a unique way that they are talking about how health is part of their lifestyle now," he said.


SIUC, the National Association of Health Education Centers and KidsHealth are partners in the project, funded by the Nemours Center for Children's Health Media. Students visiting health education centers and museums respond to eight topical questions anonymously by using hand-held data devices. The collected data is sent to SIUC for analysis and writing report summaries.

There are generally about 10 to 12 centers throughout the country that participate in each survey, including the Lilly Health Education Center in Indianapolis, the Crown Center for Health Education in Hinsdale and the Health World Children's Museum in Barrington. There are between 1,100 and 1,200 respondents in each of the four surveys.

"Part of what's unique about KidsPoll is the emphasis on involving kids in the process," Brown said. "Kids give suggestions for topics worth researching and they provide feedback during pilot testing."

Additionally, most of the surveys ask kids what they believe are the primary motivations for various behaviors, Brown said. For example, in the alcohol survey, kids responded "that boredom and desire to be like adults they know are bigger motivations to drink than peer pressure," he said.

"One thing I have learned from the surveys is not to underestimate how perceptive children this age can be," Brown said.

Among some of the survey responses:

  • 53 percent of students worried about school grades on a daily or weekly basis. Forty-three percent worry about their looks or appearance, and 39 percent worry about problems at home.
  • Twenty-nine percent of kids had been offered alcohol at least once. Of those kids, 34 percent said an adult they knew offered them alcohol while 29 percent said older kids offered it to them.
  • Forty-two percent of kids surveyed admitted to bullying at least once in while, and 64 percent of those surveyed saw bullying as being "very uncool." More than half of the children said they were victims of bullying, 33 percent said they were bullied once in a while, and eight percent said they were victims of bullying on a daily basis.

Birch said the surveys "certainly identify adults as potential sources of social support in dealing with these issues."

"When we asked them ‘whom would you go to talk about this particular issue, ‘their parents, teachers or physicians are frequent responses," he said. "While they certainly talk to other kids about this, they either talk to, or consider adults to be important sources of information. I think that is important."

The social implications of obesity are already evident to kids in this age group in terms of friendship, Birch said. The survey of more than 1,100 kids showed that 59 percent tried to lose weight, and 54 percent worry about their weight.

"The idea that this is an issue, we were surprised at the number of kids in that age group who had already tried to manage their weight in one way or another," he said.

But, 69 percent of the kids believe that healthy eating and exercise are the best ways to control weight, Birch said.

"What that means is it is important for us in health education programs to help them develop skills related to developing and maintaining healthy behaviors," he said. "They know what they should be doing but they need help from a behavioral standpoint."

The responses verify that kids and adults agree on what are important health issues, Birch said. And in examining how children chose to address or respond to the situations, there are a number of kids who respond appropriately.

Birch said the most surprising results are that kids this young were trying to lose weight and one of the most common worries is grades.

Some of the answers gleaned in the survey can pose more questions than provide answers, he said. For example, the concern over grades could be indicative of increasing parental concern over a child's academic success, or related to the increasing emphasis on standardized tests and scores.

"I think maybe what this could do is just emphasize the importance of finding out what are the best ways for parents to be engaged in a positive way with their kids in providing support for academic success, yet at the same time, not providing undue pressure or stress," he said.

"That's a fine line. Answering that question will involve finely tuned research of parents, kids and teachers," he said.

But each of the studies validates the importance of parents paying attention to their children's friends, their children's social situations and the need to provide enjoyable recreational activities for kids, Birch said.

The surveys are showing "these kids are tuned into these particular health issues and that they understand the mental, emotional and social implications of their behavior," he said. "And they recognize the importance of adults as sources of information to help them address these issues."

This year's surveys will address health literacy, tobacco, nutrition and one yet-to-be-determined.

The data that SIUC receives is broken down by sex and age, along with some demographic data. Each of the participating health education centers in a particular survey receives statistical data for their site.

More information on the different KidsHealth-KidsPoll surveys, survey findings and methodology is available at: http://www.nahec.org/KidsPoll/index.html.

For more information, contact SIUC Health Education and Recreation chair David A. Birch at 618/453-2777.
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Caption to the left of photo

(CAPTION : Hoping to help -- Giving kids a voice – Southern Illinois University Carbondale professor David A. Birch (left) and assistant professor Stephen L. Brown discuss findings from four national surveys that solicit opinions from 9- to 13-year-olds on today’s health issues. The surveys gives kids a voice in how issues such as bullying, alcohol, obesity and children’s worries are part of their current lifestyles. SIUC, the National Association of Health Education Centers and KidsHealth are conducting research on other topics related to kids. Birch and Brown are in SIUC’s Department of Health Education and Recreation, which Birch chairs.