Australia has one of the highest rates of melanoma in the world, and the incidence is rapidly rising in the adolescent and young adult (AYA) population (those aged between 15 and 25).1
Research shows that it's not that the youth of Australia don't hear the message, or that they don't understand the warnings, but that they are just being themselves when responding to it. They're applying the same "it won't happen to me; I'm indestructible" attitude that young people apply to most things.
A Master's thesis by Melissa Lynch (2010, University of Wollongong)2 puts forward an interesting theory on how we may better focus the sun protection message on young adults. Lynch recommends a "divide and conquer" approach because 15- to 25-year-olds can't be communicated to as a single entity. Rather, as Lynch's survey of over 2,000 high school students revealed, the sun protection message needs to be sold to six groups.
These groups range from what she calls the Vigilant Defender (those who will use every form of sun protection available) to the Unaffected (those who don't see a need for sun protection at all). The two major groups are the Forgetful Attempters (who are aware of a need for sun protection and generally try but often forget) and the Risk Reducers (those who apply some sun protection to minimize skin damage but still aim for a tan, which is considered to be healthy and beautiful).
So aiming the sun protection message at specific sectors of young adults would appear a prudent thing to do, but it means adjusting the message accordingly. How do you convince a teen who thinks that brown is beautiful to buck the peer pressure and go for the pale look instead? How do you remind a teenager to reapply sunscreen regularly?
It will be interesting to see how today's toddlers and preschoolers will respond to the need for sun protection in their teens. At preschools and daycare centers, a "no hat, no play" rule commonly applies, even in winter, and sunscreen and shade are the norm. Having grown up with this sun safe message, will they, as teenagers, be more likely to continue the behaviors, or will peer pressure, the media, and the general contrariness of the adolescent triumph?
Cancer nurses face a tough audience on this one, but I think that collaboration might be the key. We need to work with teachers to find ways to insert our sun safe, cancer prevention message into the existing school curriculum. The Sun Smart Website demonstrates that this can be achieved by incorporating math, visual arts, and social sciences. It will be important to instill the sun smart message in students in the lower grades to help reach the goal of decreasing melanoma rates in the adolescent and young adult population.
Australian Institute of Health and Wellness. Cancer in Australia: an overview, 2008.
Lynch, M. Divide and conquer: the application of social marketing to adolescent sun protection, Master of Science thesis, University of Wollongong. Centre for Health Initiatives, Health & Behavioural Sciences, University of Wollongong, 2010.