Childhood and adolescence are critical periods in which exposure to UV radiation is more likely to lead to skin cancer later in life. When the UV is 3 or higher, sun protection remains important including throughout the teenage years.
UV radiation can’t be seen or felt which is why it is easy to be caught out. It’s not like the sun’s light or heat which we can see or feel. This makes the sun protection message challenging for teens as it’s not always obvious when sun protection is required.
Teens face a number of other hurdles when it comes to being sun safe:
- Natural risk takers
Adolescence is a turbulent time for most young people with many physical, social, emotional and cognitive changes occurring. Typically, adolescents don't anticipate all possible consequences of their actions and are prone to risk-taking behaviours. Despite 91% of adolescents acknowledging they can avoid skin cancer by using sun protection, they’re still more likely to spend extended periods of time in the sun compared to other age groups.
- Influence of friends and fashion
Teenagers’ attitudes and behaviours are strongly impacted by their friends' opinions, as well as social norms. Their choices are often influenced by what they perceive to be accepted and trendy. This may mean that they prefer to choose less protective clothing styles.
- Focus on the here and now
While teenagers may understand that sun exposure can cause skin cancer, this may seem like a problem that doesn’t relate to them now. Adolescents continually underestimate their lifetime risk of skin cancer with the majority agreeing they have a low risk of skin cancer based on their lifestyle.
- Preference for a tan
Research suggests that teenagers have a high preference for a sun tan. Almost a third of adolescents believe a person looks healthier with a tan and the majority agree their friends think a suntan is a good thing. A tan is a sign of skin damage, and there is no such thing as a ‘safe’ tan.
Tips to encourage SunSmart behaviour
- Make skin cancer relevant – There is a myth that skin cancer only affects the older generation. Educate your teen about the high rates of melanoma amongst young people. In fact, melanoma is the most common cancer diagnosed in Australians aged 15–24 years.
- Build on their foundations – Build on the positive sun protection habits learnt in childhood, and keep encouraging them to protect their skin and eyes from sun damage when outdoors. Remind them that the sun hasn’t changed from when they were younger and that all the same risks with UV apply.
- Learn about UV together – Take the opportunity to learn about UV and why it’s so dangerous as a family. Ask your teen to teach a younger sibling or neighbour to help embed the message.
- Own their tone – Encourage young people to embrace their natural skin tone and to protect it from damage. If they insist on tanning, suggest they use a fake tan, but remember that fake tans do not provide sun protection so they still need to use clothing, sunscreen, hats, shade and sunglasses when outdoors.
- Be a SunSmart role model – Role modelling is an important way to encourage teenagers to be SunSmart. When you use sun protection such as hats, shade, sunscreen, and clothing, not only are you protecting yourself but it also means the children and teenagers in your life are more likely to use them too. Encourage your teen to role model for younger siblings.
- Allocate a SunSmart budget – If you’re in a position to do so, consider giving your teen a budget to buy clothing and a hat that meets the SunSmart criteria. This will empower them to make their own clothing decisions while ensuring they are also sun protective.
- Use the free SunSmart app – If your teen has a phone, encourage them to download the free SunSmart app and set up UV alerts. That will help remind them of when sun protection is required each day.
- ‘Dear 16 Year Old Me’ – Show your teen this powerful video which demonstrates what people wish they’d known as a teen in relation to skin cancer.
Support your child’s school to be SunSmart
Sun protection is a shared responsibility between the school, parents, and students. Ask your school about their sun protection policy and ways you can support them as a member of your local SunSmart community. The school may like to become a registered member of the SunSmart Schools Program, or use our sample policy for secondary schools as a guide when updating their own policy.
You can help by ensuring your child has a broad-brim hat, and by sending them to school with sunscreen and encouraging them to apply it before outdoor activities.