The biggest issues for Aussie teens: COVID, the environment and equity

The biggest issues facing teenage Australians this year are COVID-19, the environment, and equity and discrimination, according to a new youth survey released today by Mission Australia.

Over 20,000 Australians aged 15-19 were surveyed between April and August 2021 for this – Mission Australia’s 20th – Youth Survey Report.

Almost half of respondents said COVID-19 is the most important issue for Australia to address. This is a significant jump from last year’s survey, when the pandemic was ranked only the second most important issue.

In 2021, young people reported that COVID-19 and the related lockdowns had negatively impacted their ability to participate in activities (68 per cent) and education (62 per cent). Many young people said COVID-19 was one of the main barriers standing between them and their work and study goals.

Half of respondents said the pandemic had adversely affected their mental health.

Notably, half of respondents said the pandemic had adversely affected their mental health. Female and gender diverse respondents reported feeling much more impacted by COVID-19 across almost all areas when compared with male respondents. 

“Without the right supports and policy settings in place, there is a real concern the pandemic will have long-term impacts on our young people,” said Mission Australia’s CEO James Toomey.

The environment is the second most important issue for young people, with almost four in ten – 38 per cent – of respondents identifying this as a key national issue. This number has more than doubled since 2012, when only 18 per cent of young people identified the environment as a key issue. One-quarter of respondents in 2021 said they are “extremely or very concerned about climate change”.

Toomey says these figures, alongside existing research, show that climate change is taking a psychological toll on young people across Australia.

“No doubt concerns about the lack of action on climate change in Australia during the past several years has affected the mental health of young people. We should all be concerned about the impacts of this on young people, who are tomorrow’s workers, parents and carers,” he said.

The third highest-ranking issue for young people – nominated by 35 per cent of those surveyed – is equity and discrimination, particularly in relation to gender. More than one third (34 per cent) of respondents said they had been unfairly treated in the past year – which was higher than the 27 per cent of young people who experienced unfair treatment in 2020. This treatment was most commonly due to gender (37 per cent), with far more gender diverse and female young people reporting this than male respondents. Other reasons for unfair treatment related to mental health (28 per cent) or race/cultural background (28 per cent), especially among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people.

“Gender and racial discrimination very much exist in our country in the eyes and through the experiences of young people, and our Youth Survey tells us that young people in Australia want it brought out of the shadows and into the light,” Mr Toomey said.

“Young people have the answers. It’s a matter of ensuring they are genuinely listened to, included in decision-making processes, and their concerns acted upon.” – James Toomey, CEO Mission Australia

In addition to these three key concerns, the Youth Survey also highlighted other health and wellbeing issues for young Australians.

Four in 10 (41 per cent) of young people said they are “extremely or very concerned about mental health”. This year has been particularly stressful, with almost half (45 per cent) of respondents reporting they felt stressed all or most of the time and a similar number saying they are finding it hard to cope with stress. Gender diverse young people experienced poorer mental health than their peers, with 72 per cent saying they are “extremely or very concerned about their mental health”.

The survey also revealed concerning trends in young people’s exercise, screen time and sleep habits, showing that many do not meet the Australian physical activity and exercise guidelines. More than two thirds (67 per cent) of respondents reported less than seven hours of exercise each week. Around three quarters (77 per cent) engage in more than five hours of screen time a day and one third (36 per cent) use screens for more than nine hours a day. One in five teens (22 per cent) get six hours or less of sleep a night.

Despite this, over half (53 per cent) of young people say they are “very happy or happy” overall with their lives, and 51 per cent say they feel “very positive or positive” about the future (although these figures have decreased since 2020).

“Our Youth Survey 2021 reveals cause for optimism in many respects, and that many young people are doing well while taking on 2021’s challenges,” said Toomey.

“But we know that more must be done to ensure young people have ample opportunities to access education, employment and services when they need them, particularly as we move toward pandemic recovery and a ‘COVID-normal’ existence. Regardless of a young person’s background, location or experience, access to appropriate support at the right time can be life changing.”

Toomey continued: “The nuances of different emerging issues in respect of gender and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander status indicate that policy and service responses for young people must be properly customised and adapted. A ‘one size fits all’ approach is not fit for purpose – it simply doesn’t work.

“Young people have the answers. It’s a matter of ensuring they are genuinely listened to, included in decision-making processes, and their concerns acted upon. It’s the brightest way forward for us all.”