Why Teens Sunbathe More, Use Sunscreen Less

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Most young teens aren’t getting the message about sun safety, a new study in Pediatrics suggests.

Researchers surveyed 360 Massachusetts fifth graders, mostly aged 10 and 11, in 2004 about their sun-related behaviors, and then followed up with them again in 2007, when the kids were in eighth grade. Over those three years, the study found, teens sunbathed more often and used sunscreen less.

In fifth grade, half of kids said they used sunscreen “often or always” while out in the summer sun. By eighth grade, that percentage had dropped to 25%. In both surveys, more than half of kids reported having experienced a sunburn in the previous year, and the risk of sunburn increased most in “very fair to fair” teens — those who are at greatest risk.

Why? Likely vanity, in part: as they got older, teens were more likely to report “liking a tan.” In fifth grade, 53% of students said they liked tans; by eighth grade, 66% of students said the same. The percentage of teens who reported sunbathing to get a tan also increased from 22% in 2004 to 40% in 2007.

The increase was driven mostly by girls, who were twice as likely to report liking a tan and four times more likely to report having sunbathed in the previous year in 2007 than in 2004.

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The early teen years are a tough time for parents, the study authors note, because they’re wielding less control over their children’s behavior just as teens are starting to feel invincible and independent. Trying to get an increasingly rebellious teen to slather on sunscreen isn’t likely at the top of most parents’ to-do lists — but perhaps it should be.

The authors say it’s critical to educate teens about sun safety early on — whether by parents at home or through a community-wide effort to encourage sun protection at teen-friendly environments like beaches, sporting events and after-school sites. “This age really is an inflection point for their health behaviors,” Dr. Stephen Dusza, lead author of the study and a research epidemiologist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, told CNN. “A lot of research has shown that health behaviors in the peri-adolescence and adolescence age range are the formation for their health behaviors later in life, so this is a very important time to get these positive messages to children.”