Introduction by Croakey: While many young people are politically engaged, the vast majority of 18 to 29 year olds do not have confidence that Australian politicians are working in the best interests of young people, Australia, the planet or Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, according to Triple J’s ‘What’s up in your world’ survey.
The five most important issues for young people are climate change, the environment, health, mental health and housing, the survey found.
It is disappointing then that issues important to younger voters have largely been ignored in this year’s election campaign.
A Health Advisory Panel for Youth at the University of Sydney (HAPYUS) was established in 2021 to engage young people in research about health and wellbeing that matters to them.
Sixteen youth advisors aged 13 to 18 years joined the panel and together authored an essay titled ‘Youth perspective on chronic disease prevention’ that was published in Lancet Child and Adolescent Health last month.
Dr Stephanie Partridge, Rebecca Raeside, Mariam Mandoh from the University of Sydney and Hoi Lun Cheng from the Children’s Hospital at Westmead discuss more about HAPYUS below.
“Young people have a right to be heard and engaged in the decisions that affect them. Their lived experience and concern for their future are vital to developing solutions. As researchers, we need to listen to and elevate their concerns,” the authors state.
Stephanie Partridge, Rebecca Raeside, Mariam Mandoh and Hoi Lun Cheng write:
Today’s young people will be most impacted by global health challenges like obesity and mental health. These challenges are now entwined with the global recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, the climate crisis and the unknown consequences of these to follow.
We should all be concerned. Adolescence is a critical window to establishing lifelong healthy eating patterns and being physically active.
The current generation of adolescents is the largest in history. Improving the health and wellbeing of this generation is critical to achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
But expecting young people to eat well and be active is near impossible without health promoting communities, environments and policies that support them.
Young people are often overlooked in health and research decision making that is often led by adults.
Concerningly, this situation appears to be the opposite with big food and big tech, where young people are often targeted by corporations that manipulate and capitalise on their concerns and vulnerabilities.
So, it is no surprise that we see more teenagers enter young adulthood at a much higher risk of obesity and poorer mental health than when they entered adolescence.
We work with 16 young people as part of our youth advisory group, who are calling for change on the top issues that most affect their health and wellbeing.
These issues are the damaging rise of social media, the promotion of mostly unhealthy foods and barriers to being physically active. They wrote about how their generation has found themselves having to navigate these complexities with little support.
Research supports their concerns. Young people are seeking relatable online health content about eating well and being active.
But social media is making body image issues worse for young people with health influencers promoting health as an aesthetic using body-shape focused content.
Health is being projected to young people as ‘only certain body types within traditional gendered spaces.’
There is a lack of diversity and representation of people from different ethnicities and cultures promoting health content.
From July 2022, the Therapeutic Goods Administration will ban influencers from using testimonials to sell health products like supplements and protein powders. This is welcomed to help curb the toxic diet culture on social media.
But there are no similar regulations for junk food advertising. Young people know that they are the target of big fast-food and meal delivery companies on these platforms.
They frequently view enticing advertisements and sponsored posts with influencers in their feed. This is highlighted in food companies “greenwashing” their advertising to capitalise on young people’s climate change anxieties.
Supportive digital environments need to be a priority. The digital revolution is accelerating rapidly and needs greater public health attention.
Big fast-food restaurants are already making plans to open virtually in the Metaverse. This will allow customers to visit virtually, purchase food, and have it home delivered.
Research shows meal delivery apps already facilitate easy access to and promote junk foods, and young people dominate their customer base.
The intersection of online junk food advertising, virtual restaurants and meal delivery services in the Metaverse is huge concern for young people’s health.
As well, increased virtual interactions may encourage increased sedentary behaviours among young people.
This is combined with cost often being a barrier for young people to participate in organised sports and recreation, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Young people note that COVID-19 has increased their involvement with online activities and decreased their opportunities to participate in sports.
The long-term effects of the extended lockdown periods on weight and health related behaviours remain unknown.
Public health attention is needed to address and resolve any potential negative consequences before it is too late.
What can we do about it?
Young people recognise that these issues are interconnected through the digitalisation of society, have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and will only continue to be amplified with ongoing global problems such as climate change.
Young people have a right to be heard and engaged in the decisions that affect them.
Their lived experience and concern for their future are vital to developing solutions. As researchers, we need to listen to and elevate their concerns.
The Health Advisory Panel for Youth at The University of Sydney and the Wellbeing, Health & Youth commission are great examples of youth focused initiatives.
This article draws on the work of the members of the Health Advisory Panel for Youth at The University of Sydney (‘HAPYUS’): Radhika Valanju, Meera Barani, Dominik Mautner, Imeelya Al Hadaya, Alexi Cross, Melani Gunawardana, Ava Lambie, Emily McMahon, Arnav Narula, Bowen Ren, Dominique R, Aviral Sharda, Alexander Sinnett, Azman Tanvir, Fulin Yan; and researchers Associate Professor Seema Mihrshahi, Professor Philayrath Phongsavan and Professor Julie Redfern.
About the authors
Dr Stephanie Partridge is a NHMRC/National Heart Foundation Early Career Research Fellow and Accredited Practising Dietitian based at School of Health Sciences, Faculty of Medicine and Health, The University of Sydney.
Rebecca Raeside is a PhD Candidate and Research Associate based at School of Health Sciences, Faculty of Medicine and Health, The University of Sydney.
Mariam Mandoh is a PhD Candidate and Accredited Practising Dietitian based at School of Health Sciences, Faculty of Medicine and Health, The University of Sydney.
Hoi Lun (Helen) Cheng is the Marie Bashir Clinical Research Fellow at the Academic Department of Adolescent Medicine, The Children’s Hospital at Westmead. She is a dual-trained dietitian an exercise scientist, and her research interests lie in understanding how biological changes at puberty may impact on young people’s diet and obesity risk.
Authors declared no conflict of interest.
See Croakey’s archive of stories about youth health.
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