November 2010 Body image is the leading personal concern for young Australians while close to one-in-two list the environment as the most important issue facing the nation according to the country's largest annual survey of young people.
The survey also shows that young Australians are wrestling with stress and school/study worries at far greater levels than in recent years.
The national survey, conducted by Mission Australia, tested the views of more than 50,000 young people - its biggest group since the survey began in 2002 - between the ages of 11-24 (98 per cent aged 11-19). In addition to their concerns it surveys what young people value, who they turn to for advice, what activities they engage in and how they feel about the future.
When asked to rank their personal concerns from 15 issues body image was ranked most frequently in the top three by 31.1 per cent of respondents, followed by family conflict at 27.8 per cent and coping with stress at 27.3 per cent.
Body image was the leading issue of concern for 11-14 and 15-19 year olds and for females. Almost one-in-two 20-24 year olds considered it a major concern. For young males, body image was the second highest concern behind alcohol - 27.4 per cent to 28.5 per cent.
Coping with stress (18.7 per cent in 2009 - 27.3 per cent in 2010) and school or study problems (17.3 per cent in 2009 - 25.5 per cent in 2010) experienced the greatest increases in concern from last year's survey.
For the first time the survey asked young people for their unprompted views on the most important issues facing Australia.
Heading the responses was environment with 45.7 per cent ranking it as a 'top three' issue followed by alcohol and drugs (37.1 per cent) and crime, safety and violence (21.0 per cent). Environment was the major issue for all age groups and for both males and females.
Mission Australia's spokesperson, Anne Hampshire, said concern about body image was evenly split between young people worried about their personal appearance and the unrealistic portrayal of 'the perfect body' in the media and elsewhere.
"What came through strongly in responses was that young people are worried both about their personal body image and about how the media continues to promote a level of physical perfection that is neither healthy nor achievable. It places an enormous amount of pressure on young people," said Ms Hampshire.
"I think it tells us that despite the fact that governments, welfare groups and youth agencies have moved to tackle the issue of poor body image in recent years, there's still a lot of work to do - particularly among young adults where we saw the biggest jump in concern.
"In terms of young people nominating the environment as the most important issue facing the country it's clear from their responses they believe urgent action is required on a number of fronts. Young people are particularly keen for government leadership as well as a broad community response to the issue. They want Australians of all ages - including themselves - and backgrounds to take personal responsibility for their behaviour and lifestyle and how they impact on the environment.
Ms Hampshire said increased concerns about coping with stress and school/study problems reflected the importance of equipping young people with the ability to deal with life pressures.
"We often forget the range of competing demands and pressures juggled by young people - relationships, education, employment, the expectations of parents, peers, schools, the wider community as well as themselves," said Ms Hampshire.
"This can be a very stressful time and our results bear that out. Many young people indicated they wanted to be able to manage their stress better, noting the potential negative consequences of not doing so, including a range of mental health issues.
"We need to better equip young people, including in early adolescence, with the practical strategies to help them deal with stress. The level of concern picked up in our survey suggests the merit in a broader discussion about the nature and sources of stress among young people and how we can alleviate it."
Ms Hampshire said participants clearly distinguished between matters of personal importance and those they considered national issues. "For example, while body image was the leading personal concern, only 2.2 per cent of respondents featured it as an important issue facing Australia. At the same time participants saw alcohol and drugs both as significant personal concerns and as leading issues facing the nation. That's because, as a personal concern, they are worried about the impact of drugs and alcohol on family and friends and not having the skills to deal with the issue."
"In terms of national importance they see the impact alcohol and drugs have on the broader community. That's partly why crime, safety and violence was also a major issue of national importance - respondents often linking these issues to alcohol which we believe increases the urgency for action in this area."
Ms Hampshire said despite the fact young people were shouldering a diverse range of serious concerns - often from a tender age - the survey had detected a significant level of optimism in the future.
"For the first time this year we asked participants to tell us how they felt about the future. The answer was resoundingly optimistic. Two-thirds were positive about the future while only around 9 per cent were negative. The remaining 27 per cent were neither.
"Young Australians are also incredibly grounded. When asked what they value, financial security lags way behind family and friends - that's very encouraging," said Ms Hampshire.
From information provided by Mission Australia, November 16, 2010.
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