February 11, 2005

Pre-teens pick up on health lessons; teens tune out

by Pete Rosenbery

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- American kids lose interest in learning about health topics as they get older, according to a new multi-state survey of nine- to 13-year-olds released last week.

The findings in the KidsHealth – KidsPoll suggest teachers, health care professionals and parents need to find more effective methods of keeping children engaged and motivated to learn about health, says a health education expert at Southern Illinois University Carbondale who analyzed the survey’s results.

The poll of 1,178 kids from across the country focused on health literacy, defined as a youngster’s ability to obtain, understand and use basic health information.

“This is the perfect opportunity to develop health literacy, when they are young,” says Stephen L. Brown, an assistant professor in SIUC’s Department of Health, Education and Recreation. Brown and professor and department chair David A. Birch are in the second year of developing surveys and analyzing data collected from kids across the United States. The results may provide insight for future school health curriculums and program development.

The Kids Poll found:

  • 64 percent of nine- year- olds surveyed said they are “very interested” in learning about health compared to only19 percent of 13- year- olds.
  • 77 percent of nine -year- olds said they follow what they are taught “all the time” or “most of the time” compared to 43 percent of 13- year- olds.

In particular, the survey found that 80 percent of the kids surveyed said they believe there is “a lot” or “some” they can do while growing up to become healthy adults, and 78 percent said the health information they receive is easy to understand.

Brown notes the survey shows the decline in interest occurs at an age when schools generally place more emphasis on health education. He believes it is important to listen to kids on what motivates them to stay interested and healthy, and notes previous surveys indicated kids would rather be “engaged” when learning, with hands-on demonstrations or visits by guest speakers.

Another key result shows the continued importance of parents in the equation. In the survey, youngsters listed “school” and then a “doctor or nurse” as the top two health resources, with “parents” as third. But when asked whom they would turn to first with an important health question, kids listed “a parent.”

“Even though they are not currently the main sources for health information, parents are the preferred source,” Brown said. “Parents can take advantage of that and initiate those conversations about health topics.”

He suggests going “a step further” by demonstrating within the family how to apply important health lessons. One example is to include children in conversations with their physicians during office visits and make sure they understand the discussions. Another way is having children assist in preparing meals and teaching them about food sanitation and why certain foods are part of a healthy diet.

One surprise comes from children’s views of poor sources of health information. The top two finishers were “television,” and “friends,” with older kids saying the Internet has the least wrong information, Brown says.

“This indicates that when we are teaching health lessons to kids, we should explain that the Internet has poor as well as useful health information. And we should teach kids how best to tell the difference between credible and not credible information on the Web,” Brown adds.

As might be true with most subjects, health educators need to make health information more interesting to get kids more involved in the learning process, Brown says.

“It tells us on the surface, at least, we need to listen to what they are saying,” he explains. “So often adults get together and talk about what we think is important. We want to get kids perceptions about things they like, what motivates them and what their learning preferences are.”

This survey is the first of four scheduled for this year for KidsHealth – KidsPoll. 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. The next survey is on nutrition.

The 11 health education centers and museums that participated in this survey include the Lilly Health Education Center in Indianapolis, the Crown Center for Health Education in Hinsdale and the Health World Children's Museum in Barrington.

Leading in research, scholarly and creative activities and helping to address health issues is among the goals of Southern at 150: Building Excellence Through Commitment, the blueprint for the development of the University by the time it celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2019.

For more information, contact researchers David A. Birch and Stephen L. Brown at 618/453-2777.

For complete survey findings and methodology, visit http://nahec.org/KidsPoll/.