As kids go from elementary to junior high school ages, the desire to tan gets stronger while the habit of using sun protection gets tossed out the window, according to a survey that tracked kids' attitudes about the sun over three years.
"I think especially at this age, and in general, there are a lot of forces that promote tanning," said Stephen Dusza, a researcher at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City and lead author of the new study.
Dusza said he anticipated that, due in part to advertising and the tanning culture of many celebrities, the kids would want to tan more as they got older.
He told Reuters Health that he also expected to see some decline in sunscreen use in adolescence, "but I was struck by the magnitude of the reduction in the use of sunscreen, a 50 percent drop."
Dusza's group surveyed 360 Massachusetts fifth graders about their time in the sun, how often they used sun protection and their attitudes about tanning.
Three years later, the kids answered the same questions.
Only one in four of the eighth graders said they used sunscreen when they were outside for more than six hours, which was half as many who said they used sunscreen while in fifth grade.
Four out of 10 of the kids also went outside just to get a tan when they were in eighth grade, compared to two out of 10 when they were in fifth grade.
Despite the children spending more time outside trying to get a tan as they approached adolescence, the number of kids who got sunburned remained the same at about 50 percent.
Dusza said he's not certain why sunburns didn't increase, but that maybe the kids defined a sunburn differently as they got older or that their outdoor activities had changed.
Dr. Sophie Balk, an attending pediatrician at the Children's Hospital at Montefiore and a Professor of Clinical Pediatrics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, both in New York, said the study "underlines that many young people aren't protecting their skin."
This is a concern, Balk said, because of evidence that sun damage at a young age is tied to a higher risk later on of developing melanoma - the most deadly of the skin cancers.
"Kids think looking tan is consistent with looking healthy, but it's the opposite. A tan is the body's response to UV exposure" and it shows there's been damage to the skin, Balk told Reuters Health.
Balk said she tries to change children's attitudes toward sun protection by educating kids and their parents about the dangers of sunburns, and by encouraging young people to be proud of their untanned skin color.
"We need more media messages, more role models, more public health campaigns. As a society we could be doing more to promote skin cancer prevention and skin protection," she said.
Sunscreen is just one way to protect your skin from the sun.
Clothing, hats, sunglasses and limiting sun exposure when the sun is strongest between 10 am and 4 pm also help.
"Outside is good, you just have to do it smart," Balk said.