Young children learn more about health from television than from school, according to Warwick University's department of applied social studies research.
The survey, which questioned more than 300 school pupils aged from nine to 16 living in southern England, found that children gained most of their understanding of health, and in particular how cancer is caused and treated, from television soap operas rather than their parents or teachers.
The two most popular TV soaps, Neighbours and Home and Away, both set in Australia, may explain why the children considered smoking second to sunburn as the main cause of cancer. The children were also fixated on skin cancer, and concern that cancer leads to permanent hair loss - reflecting the plight of a character called Meg in Home and Away who feared that cancer treatment would make her long blonde hair fall out.
Although child health education is promoted in the classroom, it seems that much of it is ignored, with television proving a much more important source of information. However, according to Gillian Bendelow who carried out the research, the results are encouraging. "Regardless of their source, the survey shows that children have a much greater appreciation of health issues than previously supposed, particularly about cancer" said Dr Bendelow.
The children were also asked to draw pictures of what they thought to be healthy and unhealthy. High blood pressure, red meat and stupid doctors were among the unhealthy factors in daily life. The pictures provide a unique source of information which will be used by future researchers to monitor changing attitudes to health by children.
Dr Bendelow hopes to use her research to devise new child care heath education programmes. "We plan to repeat the survey among children in northern England to see if differences in attitude exist." she said. The research was funded by the Women's Nationwide Cancer Control Campaign.