Advice Column, Recently, Tween & Teen


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Affinity Health, a leading provider of high-quality health coverage, explores 10 health risks parents and teenagers should know about.

Adolescence is a time of rapid growth and development, but it comes with unique health risks.

“As teens navigate their way towards adulthood, they encounter various challenges that can significantly impact their well-being,” says Murray Hewlett, CEO of Affinity Health.

“Understanding these challenges can empower parents and teens to make informed decisions and prioritise their health.”

  1. Substance Abuse

Substance abuse is a prevalent health risk among teenagers. According to The South African College of Applied Psychology, children as young as 12 years old are beginning to experiment with drugs, and a rising proportion of teens are regularly using marijuana.

Experimenting with drugs and alcohol can result in addiction, mental health concerns, and a slew of other problems.

Maintain open and honest communication with your teen about the dangers of substance addiction. Keep in mind the risk of substance abuse increases when children are exposed to substance use within their household. Parents should be mindful of their behaviours and set a positive example.

Teenagers tend to live in the now. So, while discussing repercussions, emphasise the current and immediate effects of excessive drinking, smoking, or drug use, such as diminished capacity to function, memory loss, embarrassing behaviour, hacking cough, discoloured teeth, terrible breath, and pimples.

  1. Mental Health Disorders

Teenagers are vulnerable to various mental health disorders, including depression, anxiety, and eating disorders. These disorders have a profound influence on their everyday lives and long-term well-being. Parents should be on the lookout for indicators of mental health concerns and seek expert treatment if needed. Encouraging open conversations about emotions can also make it easier for teens to seek support.

  1. Unprotected Sex and STIs

Teenagers may engage in sexual activity without proper protection, increasing the risk of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and unintended pregnancies. Durex’s Global Sex Survey (2019) revealed that a quarter of Generation Z began researching and engaging in sexual behaviours before the age of 16. These statistics raise serious concerns about teenage pregnancies and sexually transmitted illnesses.

Comprehensive sex education, access to contraceptives, and open discussions about safe sex practices are essential in reducing these risks.

  1. Obesity and Poor Nutrition

Obesity is becoming more common among teens and can not only cause health concerns such as diabetes, high cholesterol, joint problems, breathing problems and heart disease but also impact self-esteem.

The World Health Organization highlighted over 340 million children and adolescents were overweight or obese in 2016. World Obesity Atlas 2023 warned that more than half of the world’s population could be overweight or obese by 2035, with childhood obesity predicted to more than double.

Obesity is characterised mainly by excess body fat, and body fat is estimated using a guideline known as the body mass index (BMI). The BMI calculates a teen’s weight and height. The findings are then compared to benchmarks for children of the same gender and age.

Focus on making small changes together to help your teen maintain a healthy weight. Encourage your teen to get at least 60 minutes of exercise every day. Keep healthy snacks in the house, like fresh fruits and veggies, and replace sugary drinks with water. And don’t forget the importance of sleep – earlier bedtimes can help prevent obesity.

  1. Smoking and Vaping

Tobacco use remains a significant health risk for teens, and the emergence of vaping has added a new dimension to this problem. A survey conducted by the University of Cape Town Lung Institute on 6 922 high school learners from Grades 8 to 12 revealed more teens are vaping as a way to control stress levels.

Both smoking and vaping can lead to addiction and have serious health consequences. Talk to your teen about the dangers of tobacco and nicotine use and provide resources to help them quit if necessary. 

  1. Internet and Social Media Addiction

Teens spend an average of seven hours and 22 minutes each day on screens, as reported by Common Sense Media. This doesn’t include computer time for academics. Excessive screen time can disrupt sleep and affect emotional health.

While screens may always be a part of your teen’s everyday life, they don’t have to be the central part. Establish healthy screen time limits and encourage your teen to do offline activities that promote face-to-face interactions.

Turn off the TV during meals and discourage text messaging or web browsing while eating. Consider implementing screen-free days to ensure your teen maintains a healthy balance between screen time and other activities. Organise family activities that do not involve electronics, such as board games or family hikes, and establish a clear rule that electronic devices should be off-limits during these shared moments.

  1. Bullying 

Bullying, including cyberbullying, can have a devastating emotional and psychological impact on teens. Parents should be aware of the signs of bullying and create a safe space for their teens to discuss any issues they may face. Encouraging kindness and empathy can also help combat bullying behaviour.

  1. Self-harm and Suicidal Thoughts

Teenagers may experience overwhelming emotions and resort to self-harm or have thoughts of suicide as a way to cope. Parents should be vigilant for signs of self-harm or suicidal ideation and seek professional help immediately if they suspect their child is in crisis. Creating an open and non-judgmental environment is crucial for teens to share their struggles.

  1. Reckless Driving and Accidents

In South Africa, one can get a learner driver’s license at 16 years of age and a proper driver’s license at the age of 18. Sadly, the risk of motor vehicle crashes is high among teens ages 16 to 19.

Teens are more likely than older drivers to underestimate dangerous situations. They’re also more likely than adults to make mistakes that can lead to severe crashes.

Parents should emphasise the importance of responsible driving, enforce safe driving habits, and set rules and consequences for reckless behaviour behind the wheel.

  1. Eating Disorders

Eating disorders are complex mental health conditions characterised by unhealthy relationships with food, body image, and eating behaviours. Common types of eating disorders affecting teens include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder.

Parents need to understand eating disorders are not solely about food but are often rooted in underlying emotional, psychological, and societal factors. They can have heavy physical and mental health consequences on teens, including depression, anxiety, social isolation, and a higher risk of suicide.

If you suspect your teen may have an eating disorder, early intervention, and treatment, which may include therapy, medical monitoring, and nutritional counselling, are crucial for their recovery.

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