Britain has the third highest proportion of sexually active teenagers in the world as well as some of the worst levels of harmful underage drinking, it has been revealed.
Shocking statistics published in the medical journal the Lancet show that youngsters are more at risk from binge drinking, drug taking and sexually transmitted diseases than ever before.
The research found that sexual activity among 13 to 15-year-olds was highest among girls in Denmark followed by Iceland, the UK and Sweden. Greece and Denmark had the highest rates among boys.
The lowest rates in boys were in Belgium, and for girls Israel.
England had the fourth highest percentage of youngsters who have been drunk by the age of 13 in a league table of 40 mostly high income countries. Wales was fifth and Scotland eighth.
Wales was third for those drinking weekly at the age of 15, with England fourth and Scotland again eighth.
The figures are taken from 2006, the last year with internationally comparable data, with new estimates in the coming months set to provide an opportunity for the UK to assess whether policies to reduce harmful drinking among teenagers have had any impact over the past five years.
Teenagers’ general well being has improved far less over the last 50 years than that of children under 10 with evidence suggesting adolescence is not the healthiest time of life, as is often assumed.
A lack of focus on adolescent health could be described as a ‘missing link’ in the approach to health, an international team of scientists warn.
The statistics are revealed in two studies by Professor George Patton, of the University of Melbourne in Australia, and colleagues which was published in The Lancet Series on Adolescent Health.
The first paper says even the explosion in social media such as Facebook and Twitter has both good and bad points for young people.
While it enables them to be catalysts for community change, as happened in the uprisings of the Middle East and North Africa, it also exposes adolescents to new risks such as cyber-bullying, and sexting, the act of sending sexually explicit or pornographic messages by mobile phone.
There are now some 1.8 billion adolescents aged between ten and 24 in the world today, comprising more than a quarter of the population.
The researchers said with longer periods in education, and significant delays to marriage or settling down, the period during which young people are exposed to the risks of adolescence has extended significantly.
Such behaviours include harmful alcohol consumption and illicit drug use with peers, and sex with more casual partners, increasing the risk of sexually transmitted infections.
Prof Patton said: ‘The present generation of young people will take a different path through adolescence from previous generations and will face new challenges to their health and well-being along the way.’
Programmes to promote maternal, newborn and child health across countries of all incomes have led to more children surviving and the current adolescent population boom, known as the ‘youth bulge’.
Over the same period digital media, industrialisation, globalisation and urbanisation have changed traditional family and community influences, resulting in less ‘social scaffolding’ of adolescents.
The researchers said many health-related behaviours that usually start in adolescence such as smoking and drinking, obesity and physical inactivity contribute to the epidemic of non-communicable diseases including heart disease, cancer, diabetes and lung disease.
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