"However, there is a core of kids that we dont seem to be reaching very
well, and its substantial. Their feelings about life and school are fairly negative
and result in some behaviours that are harmful to them and harmful to society in
Trends in the Health of Canadian Youth identifies emerging and continuing
problems: a large number of students skip classes; smoking and drug use are going up;
bullying is common; and a small, but significant, number of students do not feel safe at
The study by Alan King, William Boyce and Matthew King will be published by Health
Canada this month, and is part of a World Health Organization cross-national study, so it
includes comparisons with other countries. The most recent round of research was done in
1998 and the study compares these findings with data from 1990 and 1994.
The research found that students who are unhappy at school because of
lower-than-expected achievement, adjustment problems and poor relationships with teachers
and other students tend to disengage from school. Their friends usually have similar
feelings and together they take part in health-risk behaviours, such as skipping classes,
smoking, drinking and using drugs.
"There is a pretty dramatic increase in marijuana use in 15-year-old kids,"
says Alan King. He is professor emeritus in the Social Program Evaluation Group at
Queens faculty of education and a member of the Ontario government committee on
restructuring of secondary education.
Its tobacco use that really caught his attention. "I am amazed at the number
of girls who smoke daily. Taking our Grade 10 sample,
23 per cent of the girls are daily smokers. These are kids who feel disengaged, alienated.
They feel out of the mainstream, as if doors are being closed. They create their own
little subgroups. Sometimes they make them extreme and they wear black and put piercings
all over their body. Sometimes they are less extreme, they just sit around with others and
smoke and have parties.
"The fact is, they choose to do these things. What could possibly make a kid
smoke with all we know about the implications of smoking? It has to be some real
dissatisfaction with the way he or she has been treated."
The survey did find that well over half of Canadian students are relatively satisfied
with school, although that satisfaction goes down as they move to higher grades. Students
in these grades said teachers seemed to be less interested in them as a person.
The reports authors concluded that, as teachers become more concerned with
specific subjects and teach more students per day, as happens in secondary school,
teachers are less able to provide the time and attention students feel they need.
At apparent odds with this response is that the vast majority of students, in all
grades, said they could get extra help from their teachers when they needed it.
The survey found that positive attitudes toward school were linked to good
relationships with parents and the avoidance of smoking, drinking and using drugs.
The 1998 survey showed that 23 per cent of Grade 10 girls smoked every day. Two-thirds
of the girls in this grade, and 61 per cent of the boys, had smoked at least one
Once the health risks of smoking were generally known in the 1970s, rates of smoking
declined to a low point in 1990. Despite all the advertising and anti-smoking programs,
adolescent smoking rates have been rising since then.
Students who engage in one risk behaviour are more likely to partake in others. Of the
Grade 10 daily smokers, 90 per cent had also used marijuana.
Not surprisingly, since alcohol is used in most Canadian homes, the survey found that
by Grade 10 more than 90 per cent had tried it. The survey also found that the number of
students drinking alcohol weekly has been declining. For example, in 1990, 30 per cent of
Grade 10 boys were drinking beer at least once a week. By 1998 it was 18 per cent. The
comparable figures for boys in Grade 6 were seven and two.
However, in 1998, 43 per cent of boys and girls in Grade 10 had been "really
drunk" at least twice. As the authors note, this indicates a potentially serious
problem. These young people, under the legal age for drinking, tend to be beginning
drivers. Alcohol abuse also has implications for unwanted pregnancies, sexually
transmitted diseases and injuries.
The use of beer may have been lower because more young people are using marijuana. The
survey found a sharp rise in hashish and marijuana use from 1994 to 1998.
In 1998, 44 per cent of boys and 41 per cent of girls in Grade 10 had used marijuana
three or more times, up from 30 per cent and 27 per cent in 1994.
Solvent use is up slightly for Grade 8 students and for Grade 10 boys. The use of
cocaine, amphetamine and LSD is also increasing.
SKIPPING INDICATES DISENGAGEMENT
The survey found surprisingly large numbers of students skipping classes, girls
as well as boys, and even in the lower grades.
The survey creators added the question on skipping classes to the 1998 survey, assuming
that skipping provides opportunities for friends to meet in settings that facilitate
cigarette, drug and alcohol use.
In Grade 6, 29 per cent of boys had skipped, 11 per cent for three or more days and 18
per cent for one or two days. Of the Grade 6 girls, 17 per cent had skipped one or two
days and eight per cent three or more. By Grade 10, 21 per cent of boys had skipped one or
two days and 22 per cent three or more. Twenty-four per cent of the girls had skipped one
or two days and 20 per cent had skipped at least three.
The survey found that the more students skip school, the greater the likelihood their
friends are smokers or alcohol and drug users and the greater the likelihood that they
have smoked or used drugs or alcohol. Skippers were also more likely to be having
difficulty getting along with their parents and at school.
In other words, skipping appears to be an indicator of alienation and disengagement.
SOME NEVER FEEL SAFE AT SCHOOL
Another first-time question for the 1998 survey was on safety. Eleven per cent of
Grade 6 boys did not feel safe at school. Ten per cent of Grade 9 boys said their friends
carry weapons. Most say this is done for protection.
Although the numbers are small, they are significant.
Questions about bullying were asked in 1994 and 1998, showing an increase in 1998. Boys
are more likely to be both the victims and the bullies, although by Grade 10 girls are
almost as likely to be victims.
The survey found that bullying remains a serious problem. Victims are more likely to
feel unaccepted at school, to be lonely, unhappy and have lower self-esteem. They are also
more likely to be bullies.
Bullies tend to be a little older than their peers and to have had trouble with school.
They are also more likely to smoke, drink or use drugs and they tend to have been bullied
FRIENDS GOOD FOR YOU AND BAD
The survey points out that social integration having friends cuts
two ways. It found that social integration is a fundamental component of good health and
happiness. The students who scored high on the scale are less likely to feel depressed,
helpless or be vulnerable to bullying. They are more likely to have high self-esteem and
The survey also found that some friends spend a great deal of time together in the
evenings. A third of the 13-year-old boys spend five or more evenings a week with friends.
These students tend to be well-integrated socially. They also tend to have friends who
drink, smoke and use drugs and to smoke, drink, use drugs and skip classes themselves.
They also tend to feel negative about school and bully others.
About a quarter spend five or more evenings a week with friends, up slightly from 1994.
Much of this time is unsupervised. It is during this time, the report says, that
"health-risk behaviours tend to occur." It is while kids are "hanging
around" with their friends that they are likely to smoke, drink or take drugs.
"You can see from the data that kids are not with their parents a great deal of
the time," says King. "In fact, they are really out with friends unattended at a
very early age, a remarkably high number. Our kids receive less parent time and are
slightly less likely to have open relationships with their parents than in other
The survey also noted that relatively few students engage in health-risk behaviours
when they are not associated with a group of health-risk takers.
"One of the big things we see in our research," says King, "is that kids
have different status in schools. Some have more, some have less. Those that have less are
more likely to engage in health-risk behaviour. So there is a social system that the
school reflects, sometimes more overtly than the adult system. There is more pay-off if
you go to university and graduate in medicine or law than there is if you leave school and
work at the local mall."
King and his co-authors conclude that most of the programs aimed at stopping bullying,
smoking, drinking or using drugs have had little success. They say that an integrated,
systematic approach that includes the home, school, peer group and community is required.
The report suggests that schools encourage the use of teaching and learning methods
that enable social interaction and skill development. A wide and varied extracurricular
program that responds to the interests of students, stable homeroom groupings and
mentoring programs could combat the social isolation that many secondary students feel.
The authors also suggest that parents can provide opportunities at home that include
friends in activities that are fun and promote health.
King emphasizes the point that schools should provide for "an acceptance for all
kids. We should make sure there is a range of, not only programs, but extra-curricular
programs designed to meet the needs of all kids."
He continues, "A lot of its an attitude that the school has to develop,
especially the secondary school. It is a role of sorting and differentiating kids into
different career paths and it has to be a very sensitive, thoughtful process. The
expectation that all kids will go on to university is not only not realistic, it is
harmful. The kinds of changes I would like would be more support provided from both the
teachers and counsellors and more involvement of parents."
To see the whole Trends in the Health of Canadian Youth, visit www.hc-sc.gc.ca/hppb/childhood-youth/spsc.html