13-year-olds have better relationships with their parents but fewer friends than a decade ago

New research, published by the ESRI and produced in partnership with the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth (DCEDIY), looks at how the lives of 13-year-olds have changed over a decade in terms of their relationships with family and friends, their day-to-day activities and their school experiences. The report draws on data from the Growing Up in Ireland (GUI) study, comparing 13-year-olds in 2011/12 and 2021/22 (Cohorts ’98 and ’08), a period of considerable social and policy change, including the disruption of the pandemic, growing digitalisation and reform of the junior cycle.

Relationships with family and friends 

  • Mothers and fathers report much lower levels of conflict with their teenage children over time and mothers are more responsive to the needs of young people than previously.
  • In discussing their behaviour, parents are more likely to explain what the young person has done wrong (63% compared with 49% always doing so) and much less likely to use punitive approaches like grounding (69% compared with 59% never doing so) or shouting at the young person (41% compared with 28% never doing so).
  • Young people report having smaller friendship groups than previously: 53% have three or fewer close friends compared with 41% ten years previously. In addition, mothers are more likely to report that 13-year-olds have problems interacting with peers.

Day-to-day activities

  • There has been an increase in weekly involvement in organised sports (from 65% to 70%). There has also been a reduction in the proportion of 13-year-olds who have very low levels of engagement in hard and light exercise.
  • Levels of engagement in cultural activities (such as drama and dance) have been stable, if not increasing, with over a third of young people involved in these pursuits.
  • There is evidence that a significant number of young people rarely read for pleasure. Almost half (48%) of boys from working-class or jobless households say that they read less than once a week or never.
  • Not surprisingly, there has been a shift away from traditional media (such as TV watching but also playing video/computer games) towards other screen time (time on a phone or other device). High levels of screen time are generally associated with less involvement in sport and cultural activities.

School experiences

  • The recent cohort of young people had experienced junior cycle reform as well as a change in approaches to teaching and learning at both primary and second-level. This was reflected in improved levels of interest in English (44% to 51%), Maths (32% to 42%), and Science (60% to 68%).
  • This did not translate into improved attitudes to school. Instead, there is a decline in the proportion of girls who say they like school very much (from 35% to 24%). This is at least partly related to increased emotional difficulties over time among girls.

Policy implications

While there has been a general improvement in many domains, the study findings highlight persistent differences in the lives led by different groups of adolescents. Financial strain continues to be associated with greater parent-child conflict, reinforcing the need to target adequate levels of income support towards families with children to reduce conflict and improve wellbeing. Young people from more disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to take part in various out-of-school activities, including sport and other forms of hard exercise, cultural engagement and reading. This pattern is likely to contribute to an ongoing social gap in cognitive and physical outcomes among adolescents.

There are marked gender differences in young people’s lives, with girls more likely to be involved in cultural activities and reading and boys more likely to be involved in sport and hard physical exercise. Previous research suggests that these gendered patterns emerge early and in- and out-of-school settings should seek to provide all young people with access to a range of activities from their early years onwards. Gendered attitudes to school subjects are evident, with girls more positive about language-based subjects and boys more positive about Maths and Science; the gender gap in attitudes to Maths and Science has widened over time, an issue of policy concern.

Dr Emer Smyth, author of the report said: ‘There are very encouraging findings of better-quality relationships between teenagers and their parents, with less conflict and greater discussion. However, financial pressures continue to be a source of friction in families. In addition, young people from more disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to take part in the kinds of out-of-school activities (like hard exercise and cultural engagement) that enhance their development, highlighting the need for subsidised activities in communities and supports for schools to provide access to a range of extracurricular options.’

Talking about the report, the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Dr Roderic O’Gorman, T.D., said: ‘I welcome the launch of this report on the social worlds of 13 year olds. I hope that this report will inform policy making across Government on areas such as highlighting the importance of physical exercise in young people, the effects of the pandemic restrictions as well as the impact of screen time on their psycho-social development.’