A 'lifestyle profile' compiled from data assembled between 1984 and 1990 by the Schools Health Education Unit at Exeter University has found that youngsters between 11 and 16 have cleaner 'toilet habits', shower more frequently, wash their hair more often and are more likely to use a deodorant than teenagers at the start of the project, with the possible exception of followers of the 'grunge' trend in which youths dress down and cultivate an unkempt image.
More than 120,000 young people took part in the survey in which the questions ranged from: 'How many times in the last seven days have you washed your hair with soap, shampoo or shower gel?' to 'How often do you use an anti-perspirant or deodorant?' The survey's results will be used by schools to improve health education programmes.
John Balding, director of the unit, who compiled and developed the questionnaire, said that, faced with the data, some schools had already made much-needed improvements to washing facilities and health programmes. 'Broadly speaking, if schools know in what ways pupils' lifestyles are 'unhealthy', it helps them plan a more relevant and effective curriculum than if they base their planning on guesswork or hearsay', he said.
To broaden the scope of the survey, the questionnaire covered medication, sports, alcohol consumption, doctors and vaccinations. The results are linked with other behavioural patterns, such as smoking or going to discos, to find out how far health and hygiene habits are indicative of young peoples' self-esteem.
The survey found that boys who were less fanatic about hygiene and only chose to have two or three showers a week, led an active social life, enjoyed the highest self-esteem and were least likely to smoke. Girls, on the other hand, had to have six or more showers a week before they could enjoy similar levels of self-esteem and an equally active social life.
The link between hygiene habits and self-esteem surfaced again when the teenagers were asked how often they washed their hands after using the lavatory and then asked how high they rated their own self-esteem. Six out of 10 boys who said they felt good about themselves washed their hands whenever possible. Only one in 10 boys who rated their self-esteem as 'high' admitted they never washed their hands. The figure was about the same for the girls.
One area of hygiene which has changed quite dramatically over the seven years is the use of deodorant. In 1984, only two out of 10 boys aged 11 used a deodorant. By 1989, this figure was eight out of 10. Among 11-year-old girls, six out of 10 used a deodorant in 1984, and nine out of 10 by 1989. The report says that peer pressure and successful advertising campaigns account for the rapid increase.
Young People into the Nineties; Book 2: Health; Schools Health Education Unit, University of Exeter, Heavitree Road, Exeter EX1 2LU; pounds 6 including p&p.