New Zealand children becoming more obese, unhappy - report

A new report shows obesity and unhappiness are becoming issues in Kiwi children, despite most of them living busy lives in supportive families.

Obesity and mental wellbeing are among a raft of measures the University of Auckland researchers examined in their study Growing Up in New Zealand, which released its Now We Are Eight: Life in Middle Childhood report on Tuesday.

It continues the series of 'Now We Are' reports by the university, where the lives of more than 6000 children born in 2009 and 2010 are followed.

Growing Up in New Zealand principal investigator Professor Susan Morton said the report provides a unique portrait of the everyday reality of young Kiwi children.

The study found that 34 percent of eight-year-olds are classed as overweight or obese, compared to 14 percent of pre-school-aged children.

The report says that of those children classified as obese, two-thirds stated they wanted to be smaller.

The children lead busy lives, with more than half being involved in extracurricular activities such as sport or music. But along with this, the children also spend increasing amounts of time using screens. 

Ninety-five percent said they had access to at least one device at home and they averaged nearly three hours of passive screen time a day. Twelve percent said they often felt worried about their safety online and a quarter of mothers surveyed reported concerns about their children's online experience.

Professor Morton said average screen time has almost doubled since the pre-school years and it's apparent that children are using devices more at home and school.

While most children are growing up in supportive family environments - with 95 percent of mothers saying they regularly express physical affection with their child - one in ten children were reported as regularly witnessing either psychological or verbal conflict between their mother and her partner.

Two in three children also don't eat enough vegetables and one in three drank two or more fizzy drinks in the past week.

New Zealand children becoming more obese, unhappy - report
Photo credit: Getty Images

Material hardship and not being able to afford everyday necessities is still a common experience for some children, especially those living in high deprivation areas: 

One in ten children experienced material hardship and this was more common for children who identified as Māori or Pasifika.

Seventeen percent of mothers reported they "sometimes" ran out of food but 3 percent said this "always" happened for them.

Professor Morton said their research showed that around one-third of children had experienced persistent deprivation throughout their early lives.

She said by the age of eight, these children were more likely to be experiencing poorer mental wellbeing than those who had not experienced poverty at any time in their early years.

"We know from previous research that children who experience persistent poverty in early life are more likely to face a multitude of poorer outcomes in adult life, but we also know that some children thrive despite experiencing ongoing adversity," she said.

"We will be following these children's stories carefully to learn more about what supports and protects children through hardship and what allows them to thrive and flourish as they transition from childhood into adolescence."

She said the report could help develop policies and services to support children growing up in New Zealand.

"The information [the families] provide helps us learn more about what supports families and whānau and what enables all young children growing up in Aotearoa today to thrive."