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Teenage obesity - real and imagined

Fabian SchmidtMarch 21, 2016

Many girls worldwide think they are obese - but in reality they are not. But boys could really lose a few pounds. New data about attitudes to health among teenagers reveal this and many more interesting facts.

Teenager in front of a Computer (Photo: Colourbox/ Monkey Business Images)
Image: Colourbox/Monkey Business Images

Have you ever wanted to understand what makes teenagers in the developed world tick? Then you should take some time and read the recent report by the World Health Organization (WHO) entitled "Health Behavior in School-aged Children".

For the detailed study, the WHO collected data from about 220,000 children between 11 and 15 years from 42 countries in Europe, Russia, Israel, Canada and Greenland. The study can be found #link:http://www.euro.who.int/en/health-topics/Life-stages/child-and-adolescent-health/health-behaviour-in-school-aged-children-hbsc:here on the WHO website.#

Obesity and consumption of alcohol and cigarettes cover only a fraction of the report. Indeed, it is an all-encompassing study about the living conditions of teenagers: Starting with topics such as communication with parents, stress at school or bullying to eating habits, recreational activities, sports, and even brushing your teeth.

The WHO warns explicitly not to develop wild correlations and draw false conclusions from the numbers that may result in mistaken causal relationships. Therefore, it's best to look at and understand the figures yourself. For everybody else, here are some little factoids to whet your appetite.

Obesity - real and imagined

More boys than girls are obese. In Canada, Greece and Cyprus more than 30 percent of 15-year olds could do with losing a few pounds. In large parts of Europe - including Germany - about one fifth of boys are too heavy.

Among girls of that age group one fifth or more are obese in Canada, Greenland and Cyprus only. But in most other countries more than a third of girls merely believe they urgently have to lose weight.

Infografik Mädchen und Jungen: Wahrheit und Wahrnehmung Übergewicht Englisch

I can talk to my mother, but not to my father

Albania, Greece, Hungary and Armenia have the highest percentage of teenagers saying they feel supported by their families. In all cases, the majority of both boys and girls said that they find it easy to talk to their mother (e.g. for Albania: 86 percent of boys, 91 percent of girls).

But talking to a father is a bit more complicated - only 54 percent of 15-year old Albanian girls found it easy to communicate with their father. With boys the value was at 81 percent. Teenagers in Greenland and Ukraine felt least supported by their families.

Breakfast, supper and good nutrition

In Portuguese, Albanian and Italian families, having supper together is still a highly valued practice - in contrast to Poland, Finland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Those countries are at the lower end of the "we-eat-supper-together" scale.

In places, where parents and children sit down at the table together, teenagers tend to eat more fresh fruit. Topping the list of fruit lovers are Armenia, Albania, Portugal and Italy. Portugal is also champion in regularly having breakfast.

TV, Internet and sports don't necessarily contradict each other

"Teenagers don't do enough sports - because they are always sitting in front of the tube," or so goes the common stereotype. But the WHO study suggests it isn't necessarily true. Even though Italian teenagers are second only to Israelis in lack of sports activities, they spend almost no time in front of the TV. And, while Moldovan teenagers are champions in time spent in front of the television, they are also champions in regular sports activities.

Other TV couch potatoes include Bulgarian, Dutch and Albanian teenagers. The Portugese, Irish, Swiss, Icelandic and Slowenian youths are not very keen to spend a lot of time watching TV.

Man sitting in front of a Computer Screen (Photo: Imago/ R. Peters)
Get away from that computer and go ride your bicycle!Image: Imago/R. Peters

Moldovan teenagers don't use much social media to stay in contact with friends. Only Romanian and Czech teenagers are less enthusiastic about Facebook & Co. Really obsessed by social media are teenagers in Macedonia, Bulgaria, Austria, Ukraine and Russia.

Drinking regularly or getting drunk once in a while

Overall the study shows a gradual decline in the consumption of alcohol and tobacco among teenagers. Boozing and smoking don't seem to be considered very cool anymore. Nonetheless, there are still many 15-year-old teenagers smoking in Greenland, France, Italy, Hungary and Croatia.

In Germany, up to 20 percent of girls in that age group and up to 15 percent of boys smoke. Almost no smoking teenagers can be found in Canada, Iceland, Norway and Armenia.

While not many teenagers smoke in Israel, the country is high up on the list, as far as the regular consumption of alcohol is concerned - just behind Bulgaria, Malta, Romania and Albania. However, when it comes to 13 or 15-year-olds getting drunk, Denmark and Lithuania top the list.

Teenagers at a bar (Photo: Colourbox)
In some countries teenagers tend to drink regularly - in others they binge-drink regularlyImage: Colourbox

Smoking pot and sex

Many 15-year-olds in the Czech Republic use cannabis. Also, a fair number of 15-year-old Czech and British girls report having had sexual experiences. In the UK especially, the use of condoms is not widespread in that age group. Meanwhile, in Armenia, Moldova and Albania very few teenagers have smoked pot or marijuana - and in those countries few girls of that age group have had sex.

And to counter common prejudices: The Netherlands is only somewhere in the middle when it comes to smoking joints. Top of the list are Canada and France.

It is worth looking at the figures for Belgium - where the data differentiates between teenagers from Flanders and Wallonia. Among 11-year-olds from the French speaking part of the country, 11 percent of girls and 36 percent of boys have been engaged in physical fights recently. The climate at Flemish schoolyards seems to be considerably more peaceful - only 2 percent of girls and 15 percent of boys in that age group have been involved in fist fights there.

But, the Walloon teenagers are, nonetheless, a little bit happier than their Flemish peers. The rough habits in the classrooms do not seem to affect overall happiness.

By the way, all those who think money makes you happy - it's not true - Albania, Armenia, Moldova and the Netherlands are happiest.