The majority of pre-adolescents don't regularly use sunscreen, according to a new study, despite the fact that many of them suffered sunburns at some point during their childhood, which increases the risk of developing melanoma later in life.
Researchers from Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York followed 360 kids who were around 10 years old between 2004 and 2007 and surveyed them about whether they ever had sunburns, how much time they spent in the sun and how often they wore sunscreen.
The study, published in the journal Pediatrics, found that more than half the children reported having at least one sunburn the previous summer, and that number was about the same when the children were questioned three years later.
"At the same time, there was a signficant reduction in reported sunscreen use," said Stephen Dusza, lead author and a research epidemiologist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.
While 50 percent of the kids said they used sunscreen at the beginning of the study, that number dropped to 25 percent three years later. Fair-skinned children were at higher risk, since they were more likely to report multiple sunburns.
Most of the study participants said they liked the appearance of a tan, and the number of children who said they spent time in the sun to get a tan increased over the three-year period.
Dusza and dermatologists not involved in the research said the findings highlight the importance of finding effective ways to educate children of this impressionable age group about sun safety and the potential dangers of excessive exposure to ultraviolet light.
"When you ask kids or teens about tanning, they say people look better with a tan, and tanning has a very positive association in kids of this age, so trying to get them to limit this behavior is a difficult message to get across," Dusza said.
"This is the age group we need to make an impact on, becuase it gets harder to make an impact as they get into their later teen and early adult years," said Dr. Jonette Keri, associate professor of dermatology at the University of Miami's Miller School of Medicine.
But messages can easily get lost on children this age, experts said.
"It's a time where parents don't have as much control and kids do what they want. Their mortality is not something they think about, and there are also a lot of things we're telling them not to do," said Dr. Michel McDonald, director of cosmetic dermatology at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville.
"We need to get them to start early, and if they do that, it will become one of their habits," she added.
Melanoma, the most dangerous type of skin cancer, is on the rise in young adults.
"This is a very bad disease, so we need to identify what these kids think and once we know, we can target their thinking and try to change their habits," said Keri. "The problem is the idea of a tan being beautiful is perpetuated on television and in the media, and it's very hard to break that."
"Maybe we can get them thinking about their skin, and get them to examine it carefully and know what changes to look for, so if they do go tanning or are out in the sun, they can at least be aware of the signs of skin cancer so they can get treated early," she added.
Dusza said he and his colleagues plan to follow the same group of children up until their senior year. They also plan to enroll more children for future research with the hope what they learn about kids' sun protection habit will be used to develop more effective messages.
"Along with educational efforst in physicians' offices and schools, further studies are required to learn how to interweave enhanced sun-protection policies in settings such as beaches, after-school sites, and sporting events frequented by preadolescents and adolescents," the authors wrote.