Disparities in Adolescent Reported Drowning Prevention Strategies

Disparities in Adolescent Reported Drowning Prevention Strategies

By: Alexandra de Leon Date: September 8th, 2022

Drowning is a leading cause of injury death for children aged 1–19 in the US. In Washington State, unintentional adolescent drowning deaths have exceeded national rates for the last decade.

A new study from the University of Washington Harborview Injury Prevention & Research Center (HIPRC), Seattle Children’s Hospital, and the Washington Department of Health sought to identify gaps in drowning prevention strategies among adolescents across the state.

The study, published September 2022 in the Journal of Adolescent Health, analyzed over 47,000 survey responses regarding their experiences with swimming lessons, water competency, and use of life jackets. The research team—led by Dr. Erin Morgan, affiliate faculty at HIPRC—used responses from 8th-12th graders to assess where drowning prevention resources and education are most needed.

Morgan and her colleagues found that 62% of students surveyed reported having had formal swimming lessons and 55% felt they had a basic level of water competency. Only 60% reported regularly wearing a life jacket when boating or using paddleboards. White teens, teens who primarily spoke English at home, and those attending schools in urban ZIP codes were more likely to report these drowning prevention strategies than their counterparts.

“We found stark differences between adolescents across the state,” says Morgan. “A student’s race or ethnicity, the language they speak at home, and their socioeconomic status were all predictors of reporting these water safety strategies. Adolescents with limited participation in formal swimming lessons, perceived water competency, and use of life jackets are the same demographic groups who experience higher drowning rates.”

Researchers suggest low-cost swim lessons, transportation to lessons (for low-income communities), and lessons in natural bodies of water for all children, specifically to teach about environmental hazards may help deter drownings.

“Increasing access to water safety education will be critical to curbing disparities in drowning,” Morgan added. “We need to overcome the financial barriers that exist as well as providing information to children and their families in a way that is approachable to them. That may mean offering instruction to families in languages other than English or addressing historical and cultural factors that might prevent someone from accessing this lifesaving information.”

In addition to improving access to education, authors reiterated that participating in swim lessons doesn’t necessarily mean a child feels confident in the water and they should still use life jackets. To encourage their use, free life jacket loaner stations have been installed at several parks and swim areas around the state. Morgan and her colleagues concluded that their findings support the idea that drowning prevention requires a holistic approach and that there isn’t a single, one size fits all solution.

Funding for this study is supported by Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NIHCHD 2T32HD057822-11).