The Malta Independent 30 May 2020, Saturday

Maltese children top the obesity charts, have lowest life satisfaction, WHO study finds

Albert Galea Thursday, 21 May 2020, 07:53 Last update: about 8 days ago

Maltese children are on top of the obesity charts and are at the bottom of life satisfaction rankings, a World Health Organisation study into the habits of adolescents revealed.

The Health Behaviour in School-aged children study, which is published by the WHO every three years, delves into a myriad of habits and characteristics, speaking to children across 45 countries to try and get a clear picture of school children’s health and social behaviour. The study was conducted between 2017 and 2018 and published this week.

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The study makes for grim reading when it comes to Maltese children compared to their counterparts from Europe and Canada, with issues being flagged across various indicators.

One such indicator is that of obesity – where Maltese children top the charts for 11, 13 and 15-year olds, with the numbers not only remaining high, but having increased between 2014 and 2017, which  are dates when data was taken.

Obesity is more prevalent in boys than in girls; a staggering 44% of Maltese 11-year old boys were found to be obese, along with 38% of those who are 13, and 41% of those who are 15. Meanwhile, 34% of 11-year old girls, 35% of 13-year old girls, and 30% of 15-year old girls were found to be obese as well.

Interestingly, there has been something of a reduction in girls of these ages who have body image issues wherein they think that they are too fat – 10% less girls on average across the three age groups think as such, meaning that the percentages for this metric stand at 15% for 11-year old girls, 24% for 13-year old girls, and 25% for 15-year old girls.

It would be reasonable to conclude that the high obesity rates correlate with the diets and levels of physical activity of these children.

Indeed, the study found that while daily fruit consumption is on par with the average across all countries, Malta ranks amongst the bottom three countries when it comes to daily vegetable consumption across the board.

Only 26% of 11-year olds, 25% of 13-year olds, and 24% of 15-year olds reported eating vegetables daily. The highest ranked country – Belgium – reported roughly 60% of their children eating vegetables daily.

Over half of all the demographic said that they consume neither fruit nor vegetables daily.

Sweet consumption on the other hand is high: 37% of 11-year olds said they eat sweets daily - an increase of 12% over 2014, while there were other huge increases in the daily sweet consumption by 13 and 15-year olds as well.

The biggest increase in this regard in all countries was found among 15-year-olds in Malta (27% increase for boys and 17% increase for girls).

Malta also ranks at the bottom of the chart for oral hygiene, with less than half of all the demographics – sometimes even less than a third – having said that they brushed their teeth daily.

The study also looked at the life satisfaction of these children, asking them to indicate where their life is at present with a score from zero to ten.

The scores tallied up to find that the mean life satisfaction for 11-year olds stood at 8.0 out of 10 – which is the fifth lowest out of all the countries surveyed. The rating slumped as the age of the children surveyed rose: 13-year olds’ average life satisfaction was of 7.1 and 15-year olds’ average life satisfaction was of 6.7.

These latter tallies represent decreases since 2014, and place Malta at the bottom of the average life satisfaction rankings in this demographic.

A high percentage of Maltese children also reported multiple health complaints: 42% of 11-year olds, 48% of 13-year olds, and 53% of 15-year olds reported such complaints more than once a week.  The prevalence in the latter two demographics was higher in girls than in boys, the report found.

The study delved into these childrens’ social lives as well, with a special focus on social media use. The study found that Maltese children rank high for problematic social media use: 12% in 11-year olds (second highest), and 17% in both 13 and 15-year olds (both the highest).

Another area where Malta stood out for the wrong reasons was in sexual health.  A total of 52% of 15-year olds who reported having had sex said that they had used neither a condom nor the contraceptive pill at their last sexual intercourse. Malta is the only country where over half of 15-year olds have reported as such.

All in all, the WHO report compiles extensive data on the physical health, social relationships and mental well-being of 227,441 schoolchildren aged 11, 13 and 15, from 45 countries.

While the findings reported in the study are from 2017/18, Programme Manager for Child and Adolescent Health, WHO Regional Office for Europe Martin Weber said that the next study, which will feature findings from 2021/22, will reflect the impact that Covid-19 has had on the lives of young people.

“The data comparison will enable us to measure to what extent and how prolonged school closures and community lockdowns have affected young people’s social interactions, and physical and mental well-being.”

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