Story: Child and youth health

Page 5. Youth health issues

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Young people are popularly associated with risk-taking. Such behaviour is part of growing up and a way of learning through new experiences. However, adverse consequences of risky behaviour make a significant contribution to death and illness rates.

Between 2012 and 2015 the majority of deaths among youth (15–24 years) due to unintentional injury were the result of car accidents. The late teens was the most risky period. Males are far more likely to be involved in serious injury crashes and to die from car accidents. Most fatal crashes involving drivers aged 15 to 24 years occur on the open road and deaths are mainly due to high speed. Most young people who die in car crashes are either drivers or passengers in cars driven by young drivers. Alcohol and drugs, losing control of the vehicle and high speed were the most frequent causes of fatal accidents involving young people.


Until the 1980s, young people had the lowest suicide rates in New Zealand. Young male suicide rates increased significantly from the 1970s. Though young female rates were much lower, they also increased. As a result, young people had the highest suicide rate by the late 1980s. It peaked in 1995 and dropped in the early 21st century. Fluctuations in rates of youth suicide occurred in the 2010s with a peak of youth suicide deaths in 2012.

Teenage suicide garners much public attention, but more deaths in the youth category actually occur in the 20–24 age group. Young males in their 20s and 30s tended to have higher rates than teenagers in the 21st century. From the age of 17 onwards, the number of male suicide deaths is twice that of females. There is far less variation in female suicide rates by age. More young women than men attempt suicide, but the death rate is lower because they use less lethal methods. Rates for Māori and Pacific young people are higher than those for non-Māori and non-Pacific youth. Deaths due to suicide are also higher among young people living in the most deprived areas in New Zealand.

New Zealand's suicide rate at 15.6 per 100,000 of those aged 15–19 years for the period 2009–13 was the highest amongst 41 countries of the European Union and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries defined as 'rich countries' by the United Nations Children's Fund.

Sexual activity

Studies have found that 10–30% of young people have sex by age 15 and around 50% by ages 16 or 17.

Births to teenage mothers (15–19 years) declined after the early 1970s, though they increased slightly in the early 2000s. However, the number of induced teenage abortions increased and teenage pregnancy rates correspondingly increased after 1980. By 2003 there was one abortion for every teenage birth. New Zealand has a higher teenage birth rate than most comparable countries, except for the United States.

New Zealand's rate dropped from 33 births per 1,000 women aged 15–19 years in 2008 to 19 in 2015, but declines in other comparable countries meant it remained high internationally. The Māori teenage birth rate is higher than the national average, but has also been steadily declining.

Fun times

In 1954 a committee investigated teenage delinquency and sexual behaviour after Hutt College students were found having sex in movie theatres and on the banks of the Hutt River. The committee’s report (known as the Mazengarb Report) painted a dark picture of teenage morality in New Zealand. Not all readers found this troublesome. In later years Bob Jones, who was a teenager at the time, recalled meeting ‘Australians who had read about this in Australia and had come over here – I'm talking about chaps of about 19 and that – coming over to this sort of sexual festival – this great Mecca … of course they probably were bitterly disappointed I imagine.’1

Over half of sexually active young people normally use contraception. Condoms are most popular, while the pill is more likely to be used by young women in their late teens and early 20s. The younger people are when they first have sex, the less likely they are to use contraception.

Chlamydia, gonorrhoea, genital herpes and genital warts are the most common sexually transmitted infections to affect young people. Chlamydia is far more common in females, particularly those aged 15–19, while age and gender differences are less distinct for gonorrhoea.


In 2014/15, 57% of 15–17-year-olds and 86% of 18–24-year-olds had drunk alcohol in the past year. The older group had the highest consumption level of all ages. They also had the highest proportion of hazardous drinkers – 34% compared to 18% for the total population.

Alcohol consumption increases in the late teens and 20s. Overall, young people aged 15–24 are more likely to binge drink on one occasion than any other age group.

Buying not drinking

In the 2010s New Zealand liquor law defined who could purchase alcohol (people aged 18 and over), not who could drink it – there was no legal minimum drinking age. It was illegal to buy alcohol for a person under 18 unless the purchaser was a guardian or parent of that person, or they were attending a private social gathering (like a wedding).


Tobacco smoking is the single largest cause of preventable illness and death in New Zealand, and most smokers start in their teens. However, teenage smoking habits have changed – 28% smoked regularly (at least monthly) in 2000, compared to 6% in 2014. Those who had never smoked increased from 33% in 2000 to 77% in 2014.

Girls are more likely to smoke than boys but levels for both dropped between 2000 and 2014. Smoking prevalence was highest among Māori, though levels dropped steadily over the 14-year period.

Recreational drugs

A 2007/8 survey found the most common age New Zealanders first try recreational drugs was 15–17 years. Past-year drug use was highest in teenagers and young adults compared to older groups. Cannabis was the most popular drug and research in 2012/13 indicated that its use in the previous year was highest among youth (15–24 years), men and Māori. Use by men and women decreased as they got older.

  1. Quoted in 'Sound: Bob Jones discusses sex in the 1950s', New Zealand History online, Ministry for Culture and Heritage (last accessed 27 October 2010). Back
How to cite this page:

Kerryn Pollock, 'Child and youth health - Youth health issues', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 16 June 2024)

Story by Kerryn Pollock, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 29 Nov 2018