Sun Safety-Based Lessons are Ineffective for Educating Teens About Skin Cancer

Over the 18 years since the Melanoma Education Foundation (MEF) was founded, we’ve learned that the success of sun safety instruction varies, depending on the age of the students.

Sun safety education has a much greater effect on elementary school students than it does on teens who attend junior high and high school.

Sloan Kettering Cancer Center recently conducted a study on this topic. They researched the difference between elementary and middle school students in Framingham, Massachusetts. They discovered a 50% reduction in the use of sunscreen use by the middle schoolers in comparison with that of the elementary school students.

Despite significantly increasing the amount of sun safety instruction taught in classrooms, we’re frequently informed by secondary school health teachers that their students aren’t taking heed of the information presented to them. They ignore the dangers of skin exposure to UV rays, and continue to tan either naturally or through tanning beds.

The sun’s harmful UV rays are directly responsible for 70% of melanomas and 95% of other skin cancers. In light of these alarming statistics, the question remains why would teens continually disregard sun safety lessons designed to keep them safe and healthy?

We think that the way the information is being presented is improperly balanced. Sun safety is overemphasized at the expense of sufficiently educating students about the consequences of overexposure to UV rays.

MEF lessons do include sun safety information of course, but they start by focusing the students’ attention on melanoma itself; what it really is, what it does and how it does it. This is tremendously important, because melanoma is the skin cancer most likely to affect them all the way from infancy into adulthood.

Our lessons start with providing key information about melanoma.

Specifically:

  • That teens are susceptible to melanoma right now
  • How melanoma develops and spreads to other parts of the body
  • Its risk factors and warning signs
  • How (and how often) to self-examine their skin for early signs of the disease
  • How easy melanoma is to cure if it’s found early- and how lethal it is if found too late

The second part of the lessons focus on the role that UV radiation plays in causing melanoma, and how to reduce the risks from it.

It’s important that the lesson topics are presented in the correct order: melanoma first, sun safety second. To a teen sitting in a classroom, a sun safety talk may sound very much like a parental lecture on brushing their teeth or washing their hands. In other words, just the sort of white noise they’d be likely to tune out.

However, when melanoma is explained to teens; when right off the bat they’re informed (and, also importantly, shown) just how much damage this disease can inflict, they are much more likely to take sun safety seriously and give it the respect it commands.

A teacher survey that we recently conducted regarding the impact of MEF’s lessons yielded some very positive results. Among them:

  • 73% of teachers reported that students made appointments to get moles checked after receiving the lessons
  • 14.8% of teachers were told by students that early melanomas were found because of the lessons
  • 34% of teachers said students found precancerous moles because of the lessons
  • After the lessons, 95% of teachers reported students said they would use more sunscreen, and 81% reported students said they would stop using tanning beds

That is very encouraging data. Our previous blog post on this specific survey provides additional positive results regarding the impact of the lessons on teachers and their families. If you’d like to read it, please click HERE.

*Information source articles: MEF Fall 2017 Newsletter Article, Prospective Study of Sunburn and Sun Behavior Patterns During Adolescence, Pediatrics. Feb 2012; 129(2): 309–317, Sun-protective behaviors in populations at high risk for skin cancer, Psychology Research and Behavior Management, December 20, 2013, Indoor Tanning Is Not Safe, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Updated January 24, 2017, Melanoma Knowledge and Sun Protection Attitudes and Behaviors Among College Students by Gender and Skin Type, American Journal of Health Education, Sept/Oct 2005, Vol 36, No. 5

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