TORONTO — An alarming proportion of Ontario teens report that they have texted while behind the wheel of a vehicle, says a survey of Grade 7 to 12 students in the province conducted for the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.
The 2013 Ontario Student Drug Use and Health Survey found that more than one-third of licensed Ontario students in Grades 10 to 12 — or an estimated 108,000 teens — reported having texted while driving at least once in the past year.
For Grade 12 students alone, 46 per cent of those who drive say they also texted at least once while operating a vehicle.
“This was a big surprise to us,” said Robert Mann, a senior scientist at CAMH in Toronto. “We know that this is a very hazardous behaviour and some of the reports in the literature suggest that texting while you’re driving can increase your chances of being involved in a collision by about 20 times or more.
“I think that texting is considered to be considerably hazardous because you have to actually type on the keyboard while you’re driving,” he said.
Such distracted driving is illegal across Canada, yet many adult and teen drivers continue to communicate by keyboard while in the driver’s seat.
Yet the student surveys have found that the percentage of students who reported drinking and driving has declined dramatically over the past 20 years, he said.
“So by way of contrast, it’s a bit of a shock to see that so many of them are taking this risk (texting).”
While 65 per cent of students rated their physical health as excellent or very good — a “very positive” sign, says Mann — the survey did turn up certain risky behaviours that could threaten health, some of which appear to be on the rise.
The proportion of students who reported an injury that required medical treatment jumped to 41 per cent in 2013 from 35 per cent a decade earlier, possibly suggesting that greater risk-taking behaviour may be having negative health consequences.
The survey, which has been conducted every two years since 1977, asked for the first time about bicycle helmet use among students.
It found that 79 per cent of bicyclists in this age group report not always wearing a helmet, while 53 per cent said they rarely or never wear the protective head gear while cycling.
“So again to see that many are not wearing the helmets is a surprise,” said Mann. “And we know that injuries while biking can be very serious — head injuries, fractures and deaths,” he said.
“We’re learning more about the association between traumatic brain injuries and mental health issues in young people, and it’s important to get the message out that wearing your helmet can prevent a whole range of problems,” he said. Concussion and other traumatic brain injuries can result in cognitive damage, depression and anxiety.
One positive shift is that schoolyard bullying seems to be declining, with rates falling to 25 per cent in 2013 from 33 per cent 10 years earlier. At the same time, the percentage of teens who reported bullying others at school was down to 16 per cent in 2013 from 30 per cent over the same period. Rates of cyberbullying did not significantly change between 2011 (22 per cent), the first year of monitoring, and 2013 (19 per cent).
Since 1999, 44 per cent of students reported that they like school “very much” or “quite a lot,” up from 29 per cent. “This is an encouraging shift,” said Mann. “It’s important that students feel that school is a positive place to learn and grow.”
However, the survey revealed a darker side of life for some teens: overall, 15 per cent of students rated their mental health as fair to poor, the two lowest categories on a five-point scale of psychological well-being.
Girls were twice as likely as boys to choose those bottom two categories, and the survey found that adolescent girls are more likely to have low self-esteem and to contemplate suicide, compared to their male counterparts.
“We continue to see that, compared to their male classmates, young females are far more likely to report higher rates of internalizing mental health problems like low self-esteem, psychological distress and suicidal ideation,” said Hayley Hamilton, a CAMH scientist and co-investigator on the survey.
“Significantly, girls reported contemplating suicide at twice the rate of the boys surveyed. This disparity is consistent with past surveys and points to a difference in need that parents, teachers and care providers should be aware of.”
Not knowing where to find help also emerged as an issue among teens. Twenty-eight per cent — or an estimated 288,300 students — reported that, in the past year, there was a time when they wanted to talk to someone about a mental health problem, but did not know where to turn.
Females were again twice as likely as males to report an unmet need for mental health support, at 38 per cent and 19 per cent respectively.
“This is a troubling number, and reflects what we are seeing in research we are conducting at a national level,” said clinical psychologist Joanna Henderson, head of research in CAMH’s Child, Youth and Family Program. “We’re learning that young people need and are looking for a larger scope of mental health services that may not be readily available.
“For those who aren’t experiencing a crisis but want to talk about how they’re doing, building up peer support, school and community-based programs are good options.”
The survey also found that more than 80 per cent of students reported visiting social media sites daily, with about one in ten spending five hours or more on these sites each day. One in five teens said they play video games daily or almost daily. Males are almost four times as likely to spend time gaming than are females.
While not surprised that four out of five students are on social media daily, Henderson said those spending at least five hours a day raise concerns.
“It really alerts us to the importance of paying attention to what’s going on on these social media sites,” she said in an interview Tuesday. “It’s not that social media per se is problematic, but what’s the content of the social media?”
The question needs to be asked whether social media supports teens’ well-being and health or may compromise their mental health and well-being? she said.
“If they’re spending five hours on social media, what are they not doing in those five hours? What are the other kinds of perhaps healthy behaviours that they could be engaged in that they’re not doing?” she posited, pointing to physical activity, school work and face-to-face relationships with family and friends.
“So what is being given up to have that really high level of engagement with social media?”