UK Family Law Reform

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Lone parent families 'harm the health of children'

By Sarah Womack 4th June 2004

More children in Britain live in single parent families than almost anywhere else in Europe, according to a survey of 162,000 children living in 35 countries.

The World Health Organisation, which studied the health and behaviour of 11- to 15-year-olds in 32 European countries, as well as Canada, America and Israel, said family structures were an "important factor" in young people's health.

It found that weekly drinking among 15-year-olds in Britain was "especially high". One in two 15-year-olds were drinking weekly, a figure matched only by youngsters in the Netherlands.

More British teenagers have used cannabis and have had sex by the age of 15 than in most other European nations.

The report, Young People's Health in Context, found that around 17 per cent of families in Britain are lone parent families. Greenland and Latvia are higher at 19 and 18 per cent. In the US, the figure stands at 21 per cent.

Dr Candace Currie, of Edinburgh University, the international co-ordinator of the study, said the report was not about "lone parent bashing".
However, she added: "There is better health among children who live with both parents and in families where adolescents talk to parents about what bothers them."

Jill Kirby, the chairman of the family policy group at the Centre for Policy Studies, said: "There is a mass of evidence that children brought up by only one parent are at risk of under-age sex, drug abuse and drinking.

"There is also a greater risk of mortality. Mothers are often struggling alone and not able to supervise their children so much. That's not to say it's the fault of the lone parent but policy makers should make sure we encourage parents to stay together for the sake of bringing up children."

In contrast to Britain, more than 90 per cent of children in Greece and Malta live with both parents.

According to the report, more children are having under-age sex in Britain, the Ukraine and Greenland than anywhere else. Britain is also in the lowest quarter for using contraception.

Nearly a third of girls aged 11 in England, 35 per cent in Wales and 47 per cent in Scotland say they spend four or more evenings "out with friends". Children in Britain also feel under more pressure in school than most of their counterparts elsewhere.

Overall, the report found that many young people engage in behaviour that can potentially ruin their health - such as smoking and drinking. In all the countries surveyed, girls reported poorer health than boys.

This is attributed to having a poorer body image which leads to unhealthy diets and lack of physical exercise.

More than a fifth of young people overall had tried cannabis, with one in 12 using it regularly. About a quarter of young people watched television for four hours a day.

Boys are the most physically active in Canada, England and the US.

The findings on broken homes tally with Government figures which show that Britain outstrips most counties with its divorce rate and proportion of lone parents, with 2.7 divorces per 1,000 of the population compared with the European average of 1.8.