SPAN class="articleLocation"As children go from elementary to junior high school, the desire to tan grows stronger while the habit of using sunscreen goes out the window, according to a survey potentially raising the risk of getting deadly skin cancer later on.
The survey, carried out over three years, found that sunscreen use fell by half, said a study published in the journal Pediatrics, a worrying trend since there is evidence that sun damage at a young age is tied to a higher risk of developing melanoma.
The number of melanoma cases in the United States has been rising for the past three decades, and around 70,230 new cases will be diagnosed this year, according to the American Cancer Society.
"I think especially at this age, and in general, there are a lot of forces that promote tanning," said Stephen Dusza, a researcher at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City and lead author of the study.
Though Dusza said he expected that children would want to tan more as they grew older, due partly to advertising and tanning among many celebrities, the results surprised him.
"I was struck by the magnitude of the reduction in the use of sunscreen a 50 percent drop," he said.
Dusza's group surveyed 360 fifth graders in Massachusetts about their time in the sun, how often they used sun protection and their attitudes about tanning. Three years later, the children answered the same questions.
Only one in four of the eighth graders said they used sunscreen when they were outside for more than six hours, which was half as many who said they used sunscreen in fifth grade.
Four out of 10 of the children also went outside just to get a tan when they were in eighth grade, compared to two out of 10 when they were in fifth grade.
But despite the children spending more time outside trying to get a tan as they grew older, the number who got sunburned remained the same at about 50 percent.
Dusza said he wasn't certain why sunburns didn't increase, but thought that maybe children defined a sunburn differently as they got older, or perhaps their outdoor activities changed.
The study underlined the fact that many young people aren't protecting their skin, said Sophie Balk, an attending pediatrician at the Children's Hospital at Montefiore and a Professor of Clinical Pediatrics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, both in New York City.
"Kids think looking tan is consistent with looking healthy, but it's the opposite. A tan is the body's response to UV exposure" and shows there's been damage to the skin, Balk told Reuters Health.
"We need more media messages, more role models, more public health campaigns. As a society we could be doing more to promote skin cancer prevention and skin protection," she added.