"For teenagers, telling them UV exposure will lead to skin cancer is not as effective as we would hope,” says April W. Armstrong, MD MPH, investigator at the CU Cancer Center and vice chair of Clinical Research at the CU School of Medicine Department of Dermatology.
“If our endgame is to modify their behaviour, we need to tailor our message in the right way and in this case the right way is by highlighting consequences to appearance rather than health. It's important to address now -- if we can help them start this behaviour when younger, it can affect skin cancer risk when older.”
A University of Colorado Cancer Center study, published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, showed a group of teens two videos with different messages about sun protection and found that those watching a message solely based on skin appearance were more motivated to apply sunscreen.
After offering information about UV light and sun-protective behaviours, the two health-education videos diverge, with one describing the increased skin cancer risk of UV exposure and the other describing effects on appearance including wrinkles and premature ageing.
The results show that teens who watched both videos learned and retained the same amount of knowledge about UV light and sun-protective behaviours, but only the teens who watched the appearance-based video (and not the health-based video) actually changed these behaviours.
Armstrong says that this is a common finding among youths as it is often parents that drag teens into clinics for check-ups.
“A lot have undergone tanning or never wear sunscreen. You can tell that when we talk about the skin cancer risk, it doesn't faze them. But when you talk about premature wrinkling and ageing, they listen a little more closely," she says.
In the study, Armstrong and colleagues went to local high schools recruiting 50 subjects who then completed questionnaires demonstrating their baseline knowledge about UV light and use of sun-protective behaviours.
Then subjects were randomized into two groups, one of which viewed the health-based video that emphasized skin cancer risk, and the other of which viewed the appearance-based video that emphasized cosmetic changes due to UV exposure.
Six weeks later, all subjects again completed questionnaires that showed the knowledge they retained and changes in sun-protective behaviors.
"Interestingly, we didn't see any difference in teenagers' knowledge -- no matter if they had watched the health-based or appearance-based video, students learned and retained the same amount of information," Armstrong says.
However, despite knowing the skin cancer risk from UV exposure, the group that had watched the health-based video showed no statistically significant increase in their sun-protective behaviours, whereas the group that had been shown the appearance-based video reported a dramatic increase in the use of sunscreen.