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Putting Our Children and Teenagers on the Road to Good Health

April 05, 1999|Marla Bolotsky

We often hear that our health in our 40s, 50s and beyond is a product of what we did in our younger years. Did you use enough sunscreen? Eat too much junk food? Get enough calcium? Drink enough water? Smoke or drink to excess? How much is too much?

What better time to start building healthy habits than in the adolescent and teen years? And what better destination for cyber-savvy young people to seek out health information than the Internet?

Educating young people about the benefits of healthful eating is a good place to start. But how do you get a teen on the run to slow down and eat something nutritious? According to the Nemours Foundation, sponsor of http//www.kidshealth.org, the key is to eat a variety of foods (not just carbohydrates or proteins). There's specific advice for teen athletes, such as cautioning against loading up on carbohydrates before a sporting event. The site tells us that younger bodies need different types of food to excel in sports, and provides information on what to eat and when.

"Most athletic teenagers need all the calories they normally consume . . . cutting calories can not only hinder performance, it can even be dangerous. If anyone . . . says you should go (or have to go) on a diet, don't do anything until you talk to your doctor."

The site's teen section also includes information on emotional health and well-being, asthma, braces, eating disorders, contraception and more. For amusement, there's a section called Health Horoscopes. But do they stand by them? "We're not telling!" the site says. While it's normal for teens to be very conscious of their body image, it's a problem when that concern becomes obsessive. Eating disorders typically develop in girls between ages 11 and 14, so that's a time to pay close attention. The site (http://www.kidshealth.org/teen/bodymind/eat_disorder.html) also tells you what warning signs to look for and what damage the disorders can do to your body.

I wish I'd had something like Teenwire (http://www.teenwire.com) when I was a young teen. I could have benefited from information like this from the site: "Who cares what size clothing you wear--it's your attitude that counts." The site looks great, speaks to teens in their language, and impressed me with its depth of content. Planned Parenthood sponsors the site.

The American Medical Assn.'s consumer-oriented site is one of my favorites, and the adolescent health section is definitely worth a visit, or a bookmark (http://www.ama-assn.org/insight/h_focus/adl_hlth/teen/teen.htm). The Web address is long and complicated, but once you get there you'll find this site valuable. There's succinct information about violence, sexuality, nutrition, peer pressure and alcohol and drugs--written in a style that is appropriate for teens and their parents.

The article "Taking Responsibility for Your Health" encourages parents to respect their teens' increasing needs for privacy, while reminding teens that their parents' input is still important. And while I found the site's anti-smoking comic character to be a bit hokey, "The Extinguisher" and his "smart, hip" female sidekick Dr. Know may be just right for younger teens, who are most at risk for starting smoking.

Sex is obviously a big issue for teens, even if they choose to abstain. On this subject, Teenwire is comprehensive. It's all there--from a definition of reproduction to how menstrual cycles work to how to use a condom and the impact of sexually transmitted diseases. For teens, this is a great site for honest, informative and appealing information on sexual health. Parents, depending on their comfort level with the subject, may want to check out the site before suggesting it to their children.

For many teens, it is still considered "cool" to smoke, but the health effects are well known and devastating: lung, throat and mouth cancer, and a heightened risk of stroke and heart attack. But adolescents and teens may pay more attention if the message comes from someone other than a parent--a popular musician, for example. At http://www.cdc.gov/nccdphp/osh/top10q&a.htm, the rap group Boyz II Men answers questions about smoking. The music group talks about having to cancel eight concerts because Wanya, one of the band members, came down with a sore throat from secondhand smoke. You can even order a free Boyz II Men poster with the title: "Smoke-Free, It's the New Evolution." .

The American Cancer Society earns high marks for its creativity on "The Underground," an online game for young people presented as part of the Great American Smokeout Campaign (http://www.cancer.org/smokeout/underground). Visitors to the site can go head-to-head with the evil "Black Lung" and "Phlegm Ball" as they are presented with questions they must answer correctly in order to dig a tunnel to the White House and deliver a speech that will "save the world." OK, the quiz wasn't that hard for adults to answer correctly, but it's a great way to educate young folks about the issue.

(Note to readers: Got a favorite site? While I can't respond to all my mail, I do plan to review some of the sites you have suggested in a future column. If you'd like a site considered for review, please send your recommendations by April 10 to the e-mail address listed at the end of this column.)

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Marla Bolotsky is managing editor and director of online information for the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. She can be reached by e-mail at marla.bolotsky@latimes.com.

* Your Health Online runs every other Monday in Health.

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