Ah, the teenage years — time for growing pains with a little mix of rebellion (OK, maybe a lot of rebellion). I remember mine like they were yesterday, constantly asking my mom to let me dye my hair, stay out late and wear fake nails. Like most teens, I sometimes ignored my parents’ advice and rules that were designed for my safety.
One tiff I remember vividly is me begging to go to the tanning salon leading up to prom. “But Mom, I’ll look better in my dress with a tan!” I declared. My mom warned me of the dangers, but I chose to follow my friends and booked a tanning package anyway. Looking back, I realize how naïve I was — skin cancer definitely wasn’t on my radar at the time.
Luckily, I stopped tanning soon after, but that doesn’t mean I’ve dodged the bullet completely. People who first use a tanning bed before age 35 increase their risk for melanoma by 75 percent. It’s tremendously important to warn teens about tanning but getting through to them is a whole other matter. Amy Wechsler, MD, a dermatologist and psychiatrist practicing in New York City (and a parent to two young adults), talked to us about how to communicate effectively with teens and tweens about tanning.
Understanding Teens’ Behavior
Studies show that once children reach their teen years, parents’ influence wanes as peer influence becomes much stronger. Why is this, and how can parents regain some control?
Dr. Wechsler: Some kids want to be rebellious, and that could have something to do with parents’ declining influence! But I think that for many kids, the interest in tanning is actually more about the look. My son wears rash guards [sun-protective swim shirts], and I told him never to sunburn, but then everybody at his summer camp told him, “You look so good with your tan — you look healthy!” If you hear that enough, you believe it. A tan is still shorthand for, “I look athletic, like I’ve been outdoors exercising, not like a wallflower sitting at home alone!” But the truth is, as parents we have a lot of influence: our kids are watching us like hawks. You might not realize it, but you’re modeling behavior for your kids all the time. So, model healthy outdoor behavior by seeking shade, and by wearing sunscreen and a broad-brimmed hat, for instance.
Do teens understand mortality and aging, and how tanning might affect their health?
Kids feel invincible when they’re young. This kind of healthy narcissism is a part of their psychological development. When kids are warned about something like skin cancer, they think it’s not going to happen to them, or it’s so far in the future it doesn’t seem real or particularly scary.
Should parents approach their teen[s] together or individually?
What’s important is that you repeat the anti-tanning message in as many different ways as possible. Don’t gang up on your child, but do repeat the message whenever you can. You want a give-and-take with the kids — listen to your kids as well as lecture them!
Would you recommend offering incentives or rewards? (“If you don’t tan, I’ll buy you…”)
Sure, it might work, especially with 10- to 12-year-olds, who are often amenable to this approach.
Should parents focus more on the risk of kids getting skin cancer due to tanning, or on vanity — increased skin aging and damage to their appearance?
It depends on the teens and their personal interests. I use the cosmetic argument. I ask, “Ten years from now, do you want to look older than your friends who didn’t tan?” I often show them a photo of a truck driver whose face is vastly aged on the left side from the sun. [People who do a lot of driving are more likely to have sun damage and skin cancers on the left side of the face, which receives more UV (ultraviolet) radiation than the right.] That being said, some teens are not concerned with their looks, and for them, a discussion about the health risks associated with tanning could be effective.
What about teens who say they feel more attractive when they’re tan?
Girls feel a huge pressure to be skinny, and many believe they look thinner and more attractive when tan. In these cases, you can emphasize non-UV tanning options, like self-tanners and spray tans. These can look natural, and they won’t damage your skin. However, they also don’t provide sun protection, so it’s crucial to use a broad-spectrum sunscreen as well as sun-protective clothing, a hat and sunglasses. I don’t use self-tanners myself — I believe in going with your own glow — but I recommend self-tanners as opposed to UV exposure, by all means.
What do you tell teens who say that tanning improves their mood?
For teens suffering from SAD [seasonal affective disorder, a common mood disorder that causes depression, generally during the gloom of winter], stepping outside into visible light can help. Seeing this light with your eyes helps your brain make feel-good chemicals, so wearing sun protection doesn’t interfere with that. Activities like vigorous exercise or spending time with friends or pets can help boost your mood, too.
Does it help to cite celebrities who have shunned tanning?
Yes, absolutely. We need to point to celebrities like Gabrielle Union, Anne Hathaway, Eva Longoria and Adele, who have all talked publicly about protecting their skin.
Do you have any other suggestions?
Repetition is key — you can never repeat your message too often! Also, personal stories can be very powerful. I have sun damage on my arms from my childhood, and when I’m trying to educate kids, I show them my arms, which have little white dots I can’t get rid of. I’m sure I’m not the only parent who can use himself or herself as an example! Modern medicine is about prevention, and education is such an important part of it. Much of this education should come from home.
Have you seen changes that make you hopeful?
Even one child using a tanning bed is one too many, but I’m encouraged by some of the progress we’ve made recently. In the past few years there has been a decline not only in the number of tanning salons in the U.S. but also in the number of teens actually using them. A 2017 study found that the number of high school students who reported using tanning beds dropped by 50 percent. Additionally, 17 states have passed laws banning minors from using tanning beds, and many more are expected to follow suit. Things are heading in the right direction, but definitely not quickly enough!