NUI Galway study compares the health of Irish children to those across Europe and Canada

May 21, 2020

A new report, Spotlight on Adolescent Health and Well-being, published today by WHO Regional Office for Europe, compiles extensive data on the physical health, social relationships and mental well-being of 227 441 schoolchildren aged 11, 13 and 15, from 45 countries. Irish children rank low on substance use such as smoking and drinking alcohol and high on physical activity. Ireland also ranks high for problematic social media use. The report presents the comparative international findings of the Health Behaviour in School-aged Children (HBSC) survey, which is co-ordinated by the WHO and undertaken every four years. The Irish arm of this study is led by Professor Saoirse Nic Gabhainn in the Health Promotion Research Centre in NUI Galway. In this new report Irish 11, 13 and 15 year olds are compared to those in 44 other countries across Europe and North America. Key comparative findings show that:The Irish Study

The Irish survey was carried out by the Health Promotion Research Centre at NUI Galway and was the sixth round of data collection in Ireland. The overall study aims to gain new insights, and increase our understanding of young people's health and wellbeing, health behaviours and their social context, both nationally and internationally.

As well as serving as a monitoring and a knowledge-generating function, one of the key objectives of HBSC has been to inform policy and practice, with the Irish section of the study being funded by the Department of Health. The cross-national survey covers diverse aspects of adolescent health and social behaviour, including self-assessment of mental health; body image; dietary habits; physical activity; school context; relationships with families and peers; tobacco, alcohol and cannabis use; bullying and injuries; and sexual health (for those aged 15 and above only). A special focus on online communication was included in the most recent HBSC survey, to better understand the expanding role of digital technology in young people's lives.

Kate O'Flaherty, Head of Health and Wellbeing at the Department of Health said: "This latest international study enables us to compare our progress in the area of child health and wellbeing with that of 45 other countries; our European neighbours and Canada. This study provides valuable international behavioural information recorded shortly before the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic; the next study will allow us to gauge the effect of the pandemic on teenage behaviour, health and wellbeing.

There are many areas where Ireland is doing well, for example our low smoking rates, low consumption of alcohol and sugar-sweetened drinks and comparatively good levels of physical activity. The areas of mental wellbeing and life satisfaction were comparatively less positive, and while there is already a lot of good work underway between Government Departments, agencies and other partners to address this, it will be of increased priority as we support wellbeing and resilience in the response to the Covid-19 pandemic."

Professor Saoirse Nic Gabhainn from the Health Promotion Research Centre at NUI Galway, and the Principal Investigator of the Irish HBSC study, commented on the Irish findings within the report: "This study provides valuable insight into the health and wellbeing of children in Ireland, and how we compare with children in other countries. It is positive to note we retain comparatively low rates of substance use and high rates of physical activity. The improvements in dietary behaviour in relation to lower intake of sweets and soft drinks are very welcome. However, there are also some areas that require further effort. For example, compared to other countries, Irish children report higher levels of problematic social media use than most countries and rates of cyberbullying are of concern. It is clear that more work is required to address the reductions in life satisfaction across all age groups."

Key Irish findings:

Health promoting behavioursRisk-taking behaviourMental Health and Well-beingSocial interaction with family and peersData collected for the study are based on surveys completed by thousands of adolescents, thereby ensuring that their voices and concerns can be taken fully into account when the WHO frames its European strategies, policies and actions for improving child and adolescent health and well-being. The study feeds into a growing body of evidence calling for more effective and targeted interventions by governments and policy makers to tackle the effects of social, health and gender inequalities among young people in Europe.
To access a full copy of Spotlight on Adolescent Health and Well-Being, visit

National University of Ireland Galway

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