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17 August 2015
By Rebecca Avery

Children and young people’s risk behaviours: discussion paper

The Cabinet Office and the Department of Health have published a discussion paper which explores the decrease in 'risky' behaviours in children and young people, possible causes and what new risks could emerge. The Horizon Scanning Programme Team led a research project on ‘risk behaviours’ in children and young people in the first year of the programme. Risk behaviours potentially expose people to harm, or significant risk of harm which will prevent them reaching their potential, or damage their health and wellbeing. The evidence suggests a slow and steady decline in risk behaviours and negative outcomes, such as drinking, drug use, smoking, youth crime, suicide, and teenage pregnancy. New, or previously unrecognised emerging behaviour includes a rise in self-harm and eating disorders, particularly amongst teenage girls.

On 14 October 2014, Sir Mark Walport, the Government Chief Scientific Adviser, chaired a discussion to explore these trends in more detail. This paper summarises the views of the academics, practitioners, policy officials and young people at this discussion. It is not a statement of government policy.

The trends data pack sets out how a range of risk behaviours and negative outcomes have changed over time for children and young people. The paper highlights the possible impact of technology on risk taking behaviour. For example, the group discussed how the internet makes obtaining legal high ‘designer drugs’ easier. However, the paper highlights that technology does not necessarily increase risk behaviours or negative outcomes.

The paper identifies that there is clear evidence that moderate use of technology has significant positive impacts, improving wellbeing and social connectedness for children and young people and is a valuable source of information and support, alleviating concerns about mental or sexual health. The paper does recognise that for a small minority of young people who use technology extensively, there could be a range of negative impacts including internet addiction, cyber-bullying and exposure of children to hate content, self-harm and pro-anorexia sites.

The paper identifies that ‘sexting’ and exposure to sexual content is declining and under-age use of social media has fallen over time. The paper identifies that there is considerable uncertainty about the scale of the effects of technology as there is little evidence of causal impact and it is often too early to tell what the long-term impacts could be, however, the paper does recognise that a correlation has been observed between online and offline risk behaviours, which suggests that both might have common causes (for example children who are vulnerable to offline risks are also vulnerable online).