Obesity higher in children from disadvantaged backgrounds

By June Shannon Obesity News   |   16th Jun 2021

Children’s health and wellbeing negatively impacted by disadvantage

Children from more disadvantaged backgrounds are much more likely to have poorer health, higher rates of overweight/obesity, more socio-emotional difficulties and less positive views of their school subjects, new data has revealed.

According to a new Growing Up in Ireland report by the ESRI on the lives of young people who were nine years old in 2017/2018, overweight/obesity was higher among girls (24% versus 21% for boys) and those from less advantaged backgrounds (e.g. 31% for those from the lowest income families versus 15% for those from the highest income families).

Overall the report found that almost one-quarter of 9-year-olds were overweight or obese; 18 per cent were overweight and 5 per cent were obese.

While almost all 9-year-olds were reported to have good general health, the ESRI report found that children in two-parent families, in higher income households and with higher educated parents were likely to have better health at age 9, while those in two-parent and higher social class families were likely to be consistently healthy at ages 3, 5 and 9.

The National Physical Activity Guidelines recommend that all children and young people should be active, at a moderate to vigorous level, for at least 60 minutes every day however, the report found that only one in four or a quarter of children said they were physically active every day.

In contrast, the majority of parents reported that their child was active on most days. Both parents and children reported that boys were more active than girls, as were those from more advantaged families.

Children from more disadvantaged backgrounds are much more likely to have poorer health


The ESRI report also found that almost all children had access to the internet, more commonly using a tablet/iPad than a smart phone or games console; more than two-thirds said they owned the device.

The most common online activities were playing games (81%), watching YouTube (78%) and searching for information. Only 18% of children said they had used the internet for homework over the past week (although they may have completed the questionnaire outside of term-time).

Around half (53%) of 9-year-olds said they were allowed to use the internet without a parent/adult checking what they were doing

Screen-time was greater at the weekend, amongst those with lower-educated parents and amongst those who were high screen-time users at age 5.

Commenting Laura Hickey, Children and Young People’s Programme Manager with the Irish Heart Foundation said, “we know that children from disadvantaged communities are disproportionately affected. It’s time to turn the tide; we need investment in childhood obesity prevention and a Public Health Obesity Bill.”

“We need to look at the challenges families face every day and the wider environmental factors such as the abundance of junk food marketing, promotion aimed at children, food poverty, the availability of local nutritious food, and safe opportunities for recreational activities. We need to support families while also tackling the wider determinants of health that play a powerful role in childhood obesity. If we are serious about this, we need a targeted and tailored approach for children from disadvantaged communities.”

" If we are serious about this, we need a targeted and tailored approach for children from disadvantaged communities.” 

Laura Hickey, Children and Young People's Programme Manager , The Irish Heart Foundation

According to the ESRI, “A prominent theme from this report is the extent to which children’s experiences and outcomes were associated with their family circumstances. Nine-year-olds from more disadvantaged backgrounds tended to have poorer health outcomes, more socio-emotional difficulties, less involvement in (largely paid-for) structured activities, and somewhat less positive views of school subjects.”

Dr Desmond O’ Mahony, the report’s co-lead author, said “In terms of socio-emotional outcomes, the 9-year-old data show the majority of children enjoying relationships that are warm, close and low in conflict with their parents at this age. These are encouraging and strongly protective factors in socio-emotional development, which is going well for a large proportion of the children. However, figures of close to 40 per cent of all children experiencing bullying behaviours, and low levels of well-being reported by over a quarter of children in the lowest social class, show a requirement for improvement in school and social policies to reduce the impact of economic circumstances on children’s socio-emotional development.”

This latest ESRI Growing Up in Ireland report is based mainly on interviews with just over 8,000 9-year-olds and their parents, but also draws on information gathered at the four previous waves of the surveys; when they were ages 9 months, 3 and 5 years old (and a postal survey at age 7/8). The interviews were conducted in a period of economic recovery (2017/18); the report marks the first wave of data collection with these children and their families since the recession, but references a period before the current COVID-19 pandemic.


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