Is 16 too young to join the Armed Forces?
Editorial published in the BMJ urges ban on enlistment of adolescents on health grounds
The British government is under renewed calls to ban the recruitment of under-18s into the Armed Forces.
In an editorial published in the British Medical Journal, co-authors Guddi Singh, a paediatrician, and Reem Abu-Hayyeh, of public health charity Medact, cite past studies showing that “military service during adolescence causes specific health harms during this critical period of development”.
Specifically, a 2016 study by Medact indicated that teenaged military personnel suffer mental health problems at a higher rate than their civilian peers, and are more likely to abuse alcohol, self-harm or commit suicide.
They also claim that young recruits are at greater risk of physical injury than their older colleagues, and are more likely to end up being assigned to high-risk frontline roles after turning 18.
The joint editorial called on the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to “end its practice of recruiting adolescents to the Armed Forces”.
The UK has one of the lowest minimum enlistment ages in the developed world, and is the only country in Europe to recruit 16-year-olds to the Army, Navy and RAF.
Teenagers can begin the enlistment process from the age of 15 and seven months, which would enable them to begin training shortly after their 16th birthday.
However, the Army points out that under-18s must have parental consent to enlist and cannot serve on the frontline in combat roles.
The minimum age limit for officers, who traditionally come from more middle- to upper-class backgrounds, is 18.
According to the figures in the new report, one in five new Army recruits are under the age of 18.
The practice has long been scrutinised, with critics claiming that under-18s are too young to meaningfully consent to military service, and that recruiters capitalise on their vulnerability, especially in underprivileged communities.
In June last year, The Guardian revealed how the British Army had used targeted Facebook ads to reach teenagers awaiting their GCSE results.
Rachel Taylor, the director of programmes at Child Soldiers International, said at the time that the story was further proof that the MoD is “deliberately targeting children at the lowest limit of the legal recruitment age to fill the lowest qualified, least popular and hardest-to-recruit army roles”.
Most recently, “the decision by the British army to place a glossy supplement inside the plastic wrap for the February 2019 issues of both the official Xbox and PlayStation magazines in the UK… created an overwhelmingly hostile reaction”, writes Nick Robinson, an associate professor in politics at the University of Leeds, for The Conversation.
A survey published in July last year indicated that three-quarters of Britons believe that 18 should be the minimum age to join the Armed Forces.