Why study adolescents?

Well, adolescents are a neglected population; often the data we have are combined with childhood data and you can’t identify the adolescent years, or they’re lumped in with young adults.

Critical time of life

There’s a dearth of information but there’s also the recognition that this is a critical period, because developmentally a lot goes on in puberty. Parents exert less control over all behaviours, and nutrition, for example, actually becomes a matter of choice outside the home. How much physical activity teenagers do becomes something they control themselves. So, socially and biologically, it’s a time of great change; therefore you see big changes in patterns of well-being and health behaviour.

There’s also a common perception that adolescents are a healthy group and therefore we don’t need to worry about them. In fact, they suffer quite high levels of injury, which can lead to mortality or morbidity.

Hidden problems

Also, they have hidden problems, such as mental health problems, which sometimes manifest themselves more strongly in terms of mental disorder or illness, but are often more day-to-day complaints. We see high levels of things like headaches, not sleeping and worrying about things. They can actually reduce general well-being in that age group and are often precursors to mental health problems in young adults.

There are many signs that begin to emerge at this age showing that it’s not just an age where you’re happy and healthy – not for all children. There are patterns emerging that are traceable into adulthood, where they become more important in terms of health outcomes.

It’s also a critical age educationally; if you’re not well and don’t have high well-being, you may not reach your educational potential. That has implications for the individual for higher education and also for entering the workforce.