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Reaching into the teenage mind

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Amanda Clark, MA, RN.

Senior Nurse, Lord Wandsworth College, Long Sutton, Hook, Hampshire RG21 1TB, and freelance writer

Not a day goes by without a new wonder cure or health scare appearing in the newspapers. These reports are often sensationalist and use highly emotive language aimed at causing the greatest excitement or concern in those who read them.

Not a day goes by without a new wonder cure or health scare appearing in the newspapers. These reports are often sensationalist and use highly emotive language aimed at causing the greatest excitement or concern in those who read them.

As a health professional with a special interest and responsibility for health promotion and education, I greet these reports with mixed feelings.

There is the horror at having to address the inevitable confusion following the reporting of selected facts. Yet there is also a sneaky admiration for the way these messages hit home. If only we could be as successful in getting health promotion messages across.

The role of the media in raising public awareness is especially important when dealing with vulnerable groups: the chronically ill, new mothers, elderly people and teenagers.

My own work involves educating teenagers in the hope that they will adopt a healthy lifestyle. This group is especially susceptible to information given out by the mass media and their role models: sportspeople and celebrities.

The messages that celebrity endorsements give out are often not clear to children and young people.

I'm sure David Beckham does enjoy the occasional can of the high-sugar drink in the blue-and-red can, but my guess is that with his training schedule and the need for exceptional levels of fitness it is very occasional indeed.

Likewise, I'm certain Gary Lineker's children enjoy the occasional packet of a certain high-fat snack, but I bet both he and Mrs Lineker make sure it is only a very small part of their overall diet.

The need for such moderation, however, is not mentioned in the adverts, meaning I am often faced with young people more willing to take David Beckham's word than mine over what constitutes a healthy diet.

Teenagers are an especially difficult group to promote health to. They have a complicated sense of who they are. One minute they have the persona of a young adult, able to make informed decisions and cope with in-depth information. The next will see them vulnerable and child-like, apparently unable to understand the most basic concept and wanting someone else to take responsibility for making decisions for them.

Striking the balance is a challenge. Talk too much and their eyes glaze over and you've lost them. Talk too little and you're just another patronising adult.

The key is to keep information relevant to them. Teenagers live for today. Telling them that smoking will eventually kill them is pointless when they have no real concept of 'eventually'. Telling them that smoking makes their skin and hair dull, their nails go yellow and their breath smell gets you somewhere.

All these things matter to an image-conscious teenager. Similarly, telling them that cutting down on sugary snacks and drinking plenty of water each day will help their digestion apparently means nothing. Telling them it will reduce the number of spots they get again seems to hit home.

I am not suggesting for a minute that we dumb down, but we need to be more realistic about the situation we find ourselves in.

In most cases we are simply not getting across key health messages about smoking, drinking, sexual health and obesity. The dangers and consequences of certain lifestyle behaviours need to be related. However, telling everyone in the same way will fail. Health promotion messages need to be relevant to individual groups. This is where the newspapers succeed and we have a tendency to fail.

Newspaper editors understand their audience so well that they know what will strike a chord.

Understanding young people and what matters to them is a skill we need to learn to be effective in our aim of producing a generation of health-savvy teenagers.

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