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How to teach kids the truth about the dangers of tanning and sunburn

Myles Cockburn’s SunSmart program at SoCal schools urges youngsters to stay safe under UV rays and avert future skin cancer

sunshine, summer, sunblock, children
Sunny Southern California is the ideal place to test ideas that can prevent skin cancer. (Photo/Jim Pennucci)

As summer temperatures sizzle, kids are running around under the blazing Southern California sun.

Fun as that is, it’s also a danger, said Myles Cockburn, associate professor of preventive medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. On a warm midday in Los Angeles, it takes only 10 minutes outside to risk sunburn. But whether it’s the school year or summertime, Cockburn’s advice is simple: Wear long sleeves, a hat and sunglasses; put on sunscreen before you go outside and reapply it regularly.

That skin-searing sunshine means California has one of the world’s highest rates of melanoma, a rare but deadly skin cancer, behind only Australia and Cockburn’s home country of New Zealand. Every year 3,600 people in the state will develop melanoma, and 600 will die from it. Rates of other skin cancers are also on the rise, Cockburn said.

That environment also makes SoCal the perfect place to test out his ideas to prevent future skin cancer. Through USC’s SunSmart program, Cockburn has sent USC students out to 38 surrounding schools with a hands-on curriculum about ultraviolet rays and how to stay safe. Any school can follow the SunSmart lesson plans, and Cockburn has shared the program with nearly three dozen schools nationwide.

Childhood exposure

Fourth- to sixth-graders are the perfect age to hear about sun safety.

The sun-exposure behaviors you learn in childhood are the ones you carry with you for life.

Myles Cockburn

“The sun-exposure behaviors you learn in childhood are the ones you carry with you for life, so we want to brainwash kids early,” Cockburn said. In addition, the sun exposure people get as children has an outsize effect on their future melanoma risk, compared to UV exposure as adults.

Working with USC’s Joint Educational Program, SunSmart sends USC undergrads and students in the Master of Public Health program to local classrooms. They start by showing how UV rays are invisible but powerful. Using UV-sensitive paper and color-changing beads, the kids make art with sunshine. Then they learn what too much sun exposure can do to their skin over time, which is much less attractive. The picture that really attracts attention is one of a trucker who always drove with his window open, leading to wrinkles on the left side of his face only, Cockburn said. Then the students discuss how to avoid ending up with sunburn, skin cancer or a face like that trucker.

With a grant from the National Institutes of Health, Cockburn and colleagues developed the SunSmart curriculum into a full-fledged science experiment. In his garage, Cockburn assembles UV dosimeters out of computer parts and photo diodes. For just a few dollars each, he can put together a wearable device that measures how much UV it sees every eight seconds. Students hypothesize where in their playground they’ll get different levels of exposure and then graph their results.

Sun-safety IQ

Does SunSmart work? Ideally, Cockburn hopes to see skin cancer rates drop. In the near term, the teachers test the students’ sun-safety IQs before and after the program, and then again a month later. They also send the kids home with dosimeters to see if they’re being more careful in the sun.

“We have pretty impressive improvements in self-reported sun exposure and intent to wear sunscreen,” Cockburn said.

Some kids head home and tell their parents to buy sunscreen or admonish their brothers and sisters to cover up at the beach. Others notice that their school playgrounds offer little in the way of shade.

At the Dr. Theodore T. Alexander Jr. Science Center School last spring, a few students earned extra credit by presenting their shade concerns to parents and school board members. The school has not yet decided what to do with that information, Cockburn said, but noted a few other schools have added shady spots recently. He celebrates these “little baby steps” on the way to a sun-safe SoCal.

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How to teach kids the truth about the dangers of tanning and sunburn

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