MONDAY, Jan. 23, 2012 (HealthDay News) -- Despite the fact that sunburn in childhood greatly raises a person's lifelong risk for skin cancer, just 25 percent of 14-year-olds in a new U.S. study said they used sunscreen regularly.
What's more, behaviors linked to risky sun exposure increased as kids got older, with older teens reporting more time in the sun and less use of sunscreen than when they were young.
In the study, published in the February issue of Pediatrics, researchers led by Dr. Stephen Dusza of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, in New York City, examined data on 360 fifth graders in Massachusetts who were surveyed in 2004 and again three years later in 2007.
Looking at changes in sun-protective behaviors over that period of time, the team found that more than half (53 percent) of the youngsters had already suffered at least one sunburn by the age of 11 and that that rate of sunburn remained constant over the next three years.
But during that same time period, rates of using sunscreen "often or always" actually dropped: While half of the kids used such products at the beginning of the study, only 25 percent still did so three years later.
The authors noted that the proportion of children who admitted to "liking a tan and spending time outside to get a tan significantly increased" as they grew older, as well.
The years of "periadolescence" covered by the study (ages 11 to 14) appear to be "a crucial period" when young people often either "increase or decrease their use of sun protection, obtain sunburns, or change their tan-promoting attitudes," the authors wrote.
"Adolescence and teenage years are tremendously difficult because it is a period of flexing independence, coupled with feelings of invincibility," they added. Dusza and his team believe that educational outreach during these years will be key to ensuring kids make healthier choices that can help ward off skin cancers over their lifetime.
For more on skin cancer, head to the Skin Cancer Foundation.