Fewer children are turning to cigarettes, drugs and booze compared to two decades ago, a new report has revealed.

Research carried out into the behaviour of young people in Ireland aged between 10 and 17 found that the numbers smoking or using alcohol or cannabis are significantly lower than they were in 1998. The study also found that Irish children today are less likely to bully others or take part in sexual activity than they were in the past.

The report – Trends in Health Behaviours, Health Outcomes and Contextual Factors between 1998-2018: Findings from the Irish Behaviour in School-aged Children – looked at a sample of 15,557 students from 255 different schools.

It found that just 5.3% of 10 to 17-year-olds admitted to smoking in 2018, compared to 22.6% in 1998.

The age at which young people are trying cigarettes for the first time is also increasing. In 2018, less than a third (32.1%) of 15 to 17-year-olds who had smoked had tried it for the first time before they turned 14, but in 2002 this figure was 61%.

One in three 10 to 17-year-olds in 1998 admitted they had been drunk at some point, but by 2018 this had fallen to fewer than one in five. Those admitting to smoking cannabis within the last year had also decreased from 12.3% in 1998 to 8.5% in 2018.

Bullying is also less commonplace now than 20 years ago, according to the report. One in four children in 1998 said they had been bullied at least once in school in the two months before taking part in the survey, but by 2018 this had fallen to 13.7%.

More pressure to lose weight

But it wasn’t all good news. The study also suggested that children now feel under more pressure to lose weight than they did in the past. In 2018, 14.4% of children between 10 and 17 were on a diet, up from 11.9% in 2002.

And those who were sexually active were less likely to be protecting themselves from sexually-transmitted diseases, with 65.9% of young people in 2018 saying they had used a condom the last time they had sex, compared to 78% in 2010.

The report also included concerning findings about the mental health of young Irish people. More than one in three (34.3%) children regularly felt low in 2018, compared to fewer than one in four (23%) in 1998.

Roderic O’Gorman, Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, said action needed to be taken to support children and teenagers with their mental health, particularly in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Frank Feighan, Minister of State with responsibility for Public Health, Wellbeing and National Drugs Strategy, described the trends report as a “wonderful opportunity to take stock” and said the data was useful in shaping government policy on young people’s health and wellbeing.

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