Poll Finds Parents Out Of Touch

The gulf between parents and risk-taking teenagers is revealed in a unique Guardian/ICM poll which explores the realities of growing up in Britain today. Teenagers drink, smoke, take more drugs and lose their virginity earlier than many of their parents believe, according to the results of the study.

It shows that many parents are in the dark about the way their children cope with pressures that are often very different from those they faced in their own childhood.

Researchers questioned more than 500 11-16-year-olds about their lives – asking them to fill in confidential forms about issues such as alcohol and drug use, sex and the internet. Their parents, who gave permission for the research, gave separate answers about what they believed their children had experienced.

The gap between what teenagers have done and what their parents think they have done is striking. Of children who have tried drugs, 65% of parents think that they have not, or do not know. Of children who smoke, 52% are unaware.

Of children who say that they have looked at pornography online, 60% of their parents think that they have not done so, or did not know either way. The poll shows that 15% of children say that they have talked about sex online. Only 3% say they have met a stranger they encountered on the internet – but of those, only 1% of parents are aware of the meeting.

Most 16-year-olds, and almost half of 15-year-olds who have lost their virginity say they have had unprotected sex – but 83% of their parents think they have not, or do not know. Parents of children who have lost their virginity – 29% of 15-year-olds and 49% of 16-year-olds say they have – often do not know about it. Only half of parents of children who have had sex were aware.

The research, which was carried out in people’s homes, asked parents and children to fill in questionnaires in separate rooms. Parents were asked to list the experiences they believed their children had undergone, rather than ones they knew about for certain. The results reflect some of the issues raised by a Unicef report this month, which put Britain at the bottom of the international league for child welfare. That research, which some disputed, included risks such as drug taking.

Some aspects of teenage life did not come as a surprise. By 16, most children had played truant at some point, and 61% of their parents suspected it.

But of children who admitted shoplifting at least once, 65% of parents either did not know, or thought that they had not.

The survey reveals the speed at which children grow up in modern Britain. The difference in experiences between most 11-year-olds and 16-year-olds is understandably vast. It shows also that many teenagers are cautious about the way they behave. A majority do not – or claim they do not – drink, smoke or take drugs.

Overall, 84% of the children questioned said they did not smoke, including almost all 11- and 12-year-olds. But that drops to 65% among 16-year-olds. Of children who do say they smoke, the average number of cigarettes consumed a day is seven.

Most children questioned claim not to drink. That drops to 49% of 15-year-olds and 27% among 16-year-olds. Only 13% say they have tried drugs such as cannabis – but 21% of 15-year-olds and 35% of 16-year-olds have tried illegal drugs at least once. Only 35% of their parents guessed.

Of children who had been in trouble with the police, 35% of parents were unaware. But most children think that their parents know them well. Overall 83% of children, including 73% of 16-year-olds, say parents knew them well or very well.

· ICM Research interviewed a sample of 1,038 people from a random location, half aged 11-16 and half of whom lived in the same household as one of their parents.