What About the Children?

Child health issues ranked in national survey of adult concerns

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D

Sex! Violence! Drugs! Alcohol! Bullying! Pregnancy! Parenting can feel like a minefield at times, and a recent national poll reveals how important all these child health issues are to adults across the U.S.

The list of issues that adults ranked as "big problems" for kids and teens today will probably not surprise you, but it can help to know that others share your concerns and to learn about strategies for addressing them.

"Talk to your child's pediatrician about any parenting concerns you have."

The National Poll on Children's Health, directed by Matthew M. Davis, MD, has been put out by C.S. Mott Children's Hospital at the University of Michigan every summer since 2007.

The goal is to find out what concerns adults have about children's health issues so that public health officials, physicians and others working in the field can help address those concerns and offer helpful public health information.

This year's poll, completed in May, included 2,144 adults from across the U.S. that represent the country's demographics in terms of age, gender, socioeconomic group and race/ethnicity.

The poll consists of a list of 24 issues that relate to kids, from substance abuse to bullying to chemicals in the environment to internet safety. Respondents are asked whether each item is a "big problem," "somewhat of a problem" or "not a problem."

The issues that get the most responses of "big problem" become the ones ranked in the top ten. The leading concern this year among the adults surveyed is that kids don't get enough exercise, followed by concerns about obesity and smoking.

This is the first year that "not enough exercise" has made it to the top of the list, which has been dominated by obesity, drug abuse and smoking from 2007 to 2011.

Even though "not enough exercise" is related to the concern about obesity, the fact that it topped the list shows that public health messages about the importance of physical activity are getting across. The 14 items that did not make the top ten were still ranked as a "big problem" by some of the respondents. These items include sexting, identified as a big problem by 19 percent of the respondents, driving accidents (identified by 18 percent) and sexually transmitted infections (identified by 17 percent).

School violence and unsafe neighborhoods were both identified as a big problem by 16 percent of the respondents. Attention deficit disorder (ADD) and chemicals in the environment were called a big problem by 15 percent of the respondents. Depression was labeled a problem by 14 percent of the respondents, and suicide, racial inequality and autism were all labeled big problems by 13 percent of the people in the survey. The three concerns ranked lowest were gun-related injuries (11 percent), hunger (9 percent) and food allergies (6 percent).

Below is a run-down of the top ten items on the list.

1. Not Enough Exercise (39 percent)

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Prevention and Control, kids aged 6 to 17 years old should get at least 1 hour of physical activity every day. Most of this should be aerobic activity, like walking, running or riding a bike. The CDC recommends vigorous aerobic activity at least three days a week.

The other two types of activity they should be doing is muscle strengthening and bone strengthening, both at least three times a week. Muscle strengthening includes push-ups, sit-ups and weights, but kids often get this kind of activity in activities like gymnastics or at the playground.

Bone strengthening activities include things like jumping rope or running, and most children who engage in a sport, whether it's basketball or soccer or cheerleading or karate, are getting excellent bone strengthening.

2. Childhood obesity (38 percent)

About 17 percent of all children and teens in the U.S. are obese, according to the CDC, which is three times of the rate of the previous generation. Obesity is measured using a person's body mass index, or BMI, which is a ratio of a person's weight to height. The CDC's growth charts offer a way for parents to see how healthy their children's weight is.

Childhood obesity is definitely a problem. It puts children at greater risk for type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, cardiovascular disease, asthma, sleep apnea, joint problems, liver disease, gallstones and a range of social and mental health problems, such as depression and low self-esteem.

In addition to getting more physical activity, the best way way to address a child's weight problem is to ensure they are eating right. The CDC and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have a great deal of information available on feeding children nutritious, balanced diets. Also ask your child's pediatrician for help and resources.

3. Smoking and tobacco use (34 percent)

How do you stop a kid from starting to smoke? That's the million-dollar question. By now, everyone is aware of the health problems caused by smoking, so the trick is finding ways of making that message resonate with kids.

Several studies have found that exposure to smoking in movies can actually influence a kid's decision to light up, leading the U.S. Surgeon General to issue the statement that seeing smoking in pop culture can cause kids to start. So watching what your kids watch can help you filter out the smoking images that make it seem cool.

The most important thing is to talk to your child about smoking, emphasizing the parts that will concern them more now, such as smelling bad and having yellow teeth. If you smoke, try to quit, and talk to them about how hard it is. And find out if your kids' friends smoke so you can help them learn to say no.

4. Drug abuse (33 percent) & 7. Alcohol abuse (23 percent)

Again, the best way to prevent your children from starting to drink or use illegal drugs is to talk to them about it and pay attention to what they're exposed to from pop culture and their friends. If you need help addressing a drug or alcohol problem with your child, call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) hotline 24/7 at 1-800-662-HELP (1-800-662-4357).

5. Bullying (29 percent)

Bullying is a two-way street for parents: you want to protect your child from being bullied by others, but you also want to make sure your child isn't the bully. The practice should be taken seriously and it cuts across both genders and all ages, races, ethnicities, religions and socioeconomic groups. Bullying takes many forms these days, including online bullying. Talking to your child about their social media use and how things are going at school can give you hints about whether they are being bullied or bullying others.

Then teach your child ways to deal with bullies and the importance of reporting a situation that doesn't go away. Coping strategies include ignoring the bully, holding back their anger to prevent a bully from getting satisfaction, not getting into physical fights and practicing confidence that usually turns off bullies. But above all, make sure your child feels comfortable reporting bullying and talking to you about it.

6. Stress (27 percent)

Even kids are feeling stress these days. It could be from bullying, school problems, family issues or even local, national and world events that are beyond their control but disturbing nonetheless. Since your child will be no stranger to stress for the rest of their lives, start teaching them coping strategies now. Consider working on mindfulness as a family and being sure to use healthy ways to relieve stress, such as exercise, sports, reading, hobbies and laughing.

8. Teen pregnancy (23 percent)

The CDC reports that 47 percent of all teens have had sex, and about 40 percent reporting not using a condom the last time they had sex. It's no wonder then that 400,000 girls between the ages of 15 and 19 gave birth in 2009.

Even if you think your child is not sexually active, it's important to talk to them about all the issues related to sex. That includes dealing with dating violence, sexually transmitted infections, teen pregnancy, rape avoidance awareness and healthy interactions with partners. If you're uncomfortable with the discussion, look at the resources provided by the CDC and talk to your health provider about how to have healthy discussions with your kids.

9. Internet safety (22 percent)

There are laws in place to try to protect minors from being exploited online, but nothing can replace the vigilance you have with watching what your children do online. Implement online protection tools, often offered by internet service providers, that restrict the sites they can visit. Keep the computer in a common area of the house instead of a bedroom so it's easier to monitor its use.

Make it a regular practice to view their online histories, and require them to give you their passwords for email and social media sites so you can keep tabs on who they contact — and who is contacting them. And keep an eye on your credit card and phone bills so you can notice when unusual activity might mean a security breach or that they're accessing a site they shouldn't.

10. Child abuse and neglect (20 percent)

More than 84 kids are seen every hour in a U.S. emergency department for violence, reports the CDC. That's over 740,000 kids every year. And those are just for physical issues. Child abuse and neglect also includes sexual abuse and emotional abuse, and both have just as lasting an impact — if not more — than physical abuse. Make sure your kids feel comfortable reporting things to you, and if it's you or a partner who is causing violence in the home, get help immediately by talking to a doctor or calling the SAMHSA hotline at 1-800-662-HELP.

The poll was conducted in May by GfK Custom Research, LLC, for C.S. Mott Children's Hospital in Michigan.

Review Date: 
August 22, 2012