New Growing Up in Ireland research describes the lives of 9-year-olds in 2017/18: most children get on very well with their parents and like their teachers, but their health and well-being are strongly linked to their family circumstances.

New Growing Up in Ireland research describes the lives of 9-year-olds in 2017/18: most children get on very well with their parents and like their teachers, but their health and well-being are strongly linked to their family circumstances.

 

Growing Up in Ireland today (16th June 2021) publishes a new report on the lives of young people who were nine years old in 2017/2018 and who had been followed by the researchers since they were 9 months old. This report is based mainly on interviews with just over 8,000 9-year-olds and their parents, but also draws on information gathered at the four previous waves of the surveys; when they were ages 9 months, 3 and 5 years old (and a postal survey at age 7/8). The interviews for this report were conducted in a period of economic recovery (2017/18); the report marks the first wave of data collection with these children and their families since the recession, but references a period before the current COVID-19 pandemic.

 

The findings show that 9-year-olds’ experiences and developmental outcomes – particularly in terms of physical health, socio-emotional well-being and difficulties, play and activities, and attitudes to, and engagement with, school – were associated with both gender and family circumstances. Nine-year-olds from more disadvantaged backgrounds were much more likely to have poorer health, higher rates of overweight/obesity, more socio-emotional difficulties and less positive views of their school subjects. Day-to-day activities among girls and boys were quite different, with girls being much more involved in structured cultural activities (like music and drama) and boys more engaged in team sports. The longitudinal nature of this study also provides a unique perspective of developmental trajectories (some transitory, some continuous) of these and other outcomes, from infancy to middle childhood.

 

Whilst the initial results from this wave were published in late 2018, today’s report provides more detailed findings and expanded insights into the lives of these children, both in light of their earlier experiences and in the context of national and international research on this age group. The report will help to inform policy-makers and others involved in providing services for children and their families across a range of domains.

Physical Health and Development

  • Almost all 9-year-olds were reported to have good general health, 79% were very healthy and 20% were healthy (but had a few minor problems) – just 1% were described as quite ill or always unwell.

    • Children in two-parent families, in higher income households and with higher educated parents were likely to have better health at age 9, while those in two-parent and higher social class families were likely to be consistently healthy at ages 3, 5 and 9.
  • One quarter of children had a longstanding illness, condition or disease, an increase from 16% at age 3 and 19% at age 5; asthma was the most common such illness (9%).
    • Boys were more likely to have a longstanding illness than girls (28% versus 19%).
  • Almost one-quarter of 9-year-olds were overweight or obese; 18% were overweight and 5% were obese
    • Overweight/obesity was higher amongst girls (24% versus 21% for boys) and amongst those from less advantaged backgrounds (e.g. 31% for those from the lowest income families versus 15% for those from the highest income families).

Education and Cognitive Development

  • Attitudes to school and teachers were broadly positive; one-third of children said they always liked school and 62% sometimes liked it, while two-thirds of children always liked their teacher.

    • Negative attitudes to school were much more uncommon; just 5% said they never liked school and 3% never liked their teacher.
  • Attitudes to Reading were more positive than attitudes to Maths or Irish.
    • Just over 60% of 9-year-olds always liked Reading, compared to 48% for Maths and 22% for Irish.
    • Over a quarter (28%) of 9-year-olds never liked Irish, more than Maths (11%) or Reading (5%).
  • The broadly positive attitude to school was not strongly related to socio-economic circumstances but instead was markedly patterned according to the child’s gender.
    • Many more girls than boys said that they ‘always liked’ school (41% vs 25%), teachers (73% vs 59%), Reading (68% vs 55%) and Irish (26% vs 18%).
    • Maths was the only area where many more boys than girls said they ‘always liked’ it (54% vs 42%).
  • Significant differences were found in reading test scores by socio-economic background; where an average score is 100, there was a gap of over 10 points between the highest and lowest social class and parental education groups.
    • This socio-economic gap in reading test scores had widened since the children started primary school, with children from disadvantaged backgrounds who were early high performers being outperformed by children from more advantaged backgrounds by 9 years of age.

Socio-emotional Development, Well-being and Relationships

  • Parents and teachers both rated the 9-year-olds’ socio-emotional well-being positively, describing low levels of socio-emotional difficulties and high levels of prosocial behaviour (positive interaction with others).

    • Some gender differences in parent-reported socio-emotional well-being were observed; boys were rated as having more difficulties with conduct, hyperactivity / inattention and peer relationships, while girls displayed more prosocial behaviours.
  • Children’s self-concept was more negative among those from lower income families; with 27% of children from the lowest income category reporting low/very low self-concept vs 14% from the highest income category. A similar pattern was observed for Primary Caregiver education, with 26% of children reporting low/very low self-concept in families where their mother’s highest level of education was Junior Certificate or below vs 13% where the highest level of education was degree level or higher.
  • Parents also reported having close relationships with their children, with high levels of warmth and consistency in their parenting style. Overall levels of conflict and hostility towards the 9-year-olds were low, though 17% of primary caregivers in the lowest social class reported high levels of conflict compared to only 8% of those from the highest social class.
    • Around 80% of children said they got on very well with their parents with girls reporting better relationships overall than boys.
  • Almost all children had at least one close friend, and usually engaged in activities with their friends on two to three days per week.
  • Almost two-fifths of 9-year-olds said they had been picked on in the last year, most commonly in the form of verbal bullying or exclusion.

Family Structure and Economic Circumstance

  • In terms of family structure, 76% of 9-year-olds had always lived in two-parent families, 8% had always lived in one-parent families, with the remainder moving from one- to two-parent families or vice-versa.

    • Almost 90% lived in families with other children. 
  • Almost all children (90%) saw grandparents regularly (that is, at least once or twice per month).
  • For two-parent families, almost two-thirds of mothers were employed. Levels of employment for mothers in one-parent families were lower, with a little over half (58%) in paid employment. Over 90% of fathers were in employment.
  • Missing out on family activities due to work was reported by 42% of mothers and 55% of fathers.
    • Over a quarter (28%) of mothers and 20% of fathers said they had turned down work opportunities because of family commitments.
  • Financial strain was reported by 13% of parents of 9-year-olds. This was a subjective measure related to ‘difficulties making ends meet’ at the time of interview in 2017/18.
    • This is a substantial improvement from when the parents were previously interviewed when the children were 5 (in 2013) – 26% of parents reported experiencing financial stress at the time. These figures mirror broader patterns of economic growth and recession.
    • Financial stress was higher amongst one-parent families (29% versus 10% of two-parent families) with similar trends between low versus high education families and low versus high social class families.

Play and Activities

  • The most frequently reported favourite activities amongst 9-year-olds were football and playing on the internet (both 27%), playing with friends and reading or writing (both 23%).
  • Participation in largely paid-for organised activities, such as team/individual sports and music/dance, was higher for those from more advantaged families (in terms of social class and family income)
    • Gender-based differences were observed too; boys were more likely to participate in team sports, while girls were more likely to participate in music or dance.
  • Only one-quarter of children said they were physically active every day.
    • In contrast, the majority of parents reported that their child was active on most days.
    • Both parents and children reported that boys were more active than girls, as were those from more advantaged families.
  • Almost all children had access to the internet, more commonly using a tablet/iPad than a smart phone or games console; more than two-thirds said they owned the device.
    • The most common online activities were playing games (81%), watching YouTube (78%) and searching for information. Only 18% of children said they had used the internet for homework over the past week (although they may have completed the questionnaire outside of term-time).
    • Around half (53%) of 9-year-olds said they were allowed to use the internet without a parent/adult checking what they were doing

Screen-time was greater at the weekend, amongst those with lower-educated parents and amongst those who were high screen-time users at age 5.

Policy Implications

A principal aim of Growing Up in Ireland is to inform policy formation and the design of services for children and their families across a large number of interrelated policy areas, including health, education, family policy and social welfare.

  • A prominent theme from this report is the extent to which children’s experiences and outcomes were associated with their family circumstances. Nine-year-olds from more disadvantaged backgrounds tended to have poorer health outcomes, more socio-emotional difficulties, less involvement in (largely paid-for) structured activities, and somewhat less positive views of school subjects. Further research using Growing Up in Ireland data can pinpoint the factors underlying this socio-economic differentiation, identifying the risk and protective factors that shape child outcomes in order to target policy interventions in the most effective way. In particular, much could be learned by exploring the experiences of children from disadvantaged backgrounds who did not have poorer outcomes. 
  • Significant gender differences were also highlighted through these findings, in terms of the types of activities in which children engaged, long-standing health conditions, school disengagement and socio-emotional well-being. There is considerable potential to unpack the interaction of gender and family background in influencing these outcomes as well as identifying the factors which explain gender-based differences.
  • The longitudinal nature of the study provides rich insights into the developmental trajectories taken by children from infancy to middle childhood. While some patterns were transitory, other patterns (such as overweight/obesity) showed much more continuity across waves, indicating the importance of early intervention in preventing longer term difficulties. A longitudinal perspective allows for the identification of key turning points and protective factors in helping shape more positive outcomes among children.
  • This wave of data will allow for a comparison with the experiences of 9-year-olds a decade previously. Comparing Cohorts ’98 and ’08 will provide a useful way of disentangling broader societal and policy changes and the way they have impacted on 9-year-olds, adding to the evidence base provided by the study.

Dr Desmond O’Mahony, the report’s co-lead author, said “In terms of socio-emotional outcomes, the 9-year-old data show the majority of children enjoying relationships that are warm, close and low in conflict with their parents at this age. These are encouraging and strongly protective factors in socio-emotional development, which is going well for a large proportion of the children. However, figures of close to 40% of all children experiencing bullying behaviours, and low levels of well-being reported by over a quarter of children in the lowest social class, show a requirement for improvement in school and social policies to reduce the impact of economic circumstances on children’s socio-emotional development.”

 

Dr Eoin McNamara, co-lead author, said “Whilst today’s report references the experiences of the children before the current COVID-19 pandemic, it does highlight disparities along the lines of family income and social class that could potentially be magnified as a result of the pandemic and associated lockdown measures – particularly in terms of health- and education-related developmental outcomes.”

 

Commenting on the publication of this new report, Bernie Mc Nally, Assistant Secretary General, Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, said:

“The GUI study is the foundation for much of the research on children’s lives in Ireland today.  Over the last 15 years, the State has invested in building this foundation by tracking the lives of two groups of children: one now aged 13 and the other aged 22. This report reveals how the experiences of 9-year-old children, the communities and families they live in, and their interaction with government services and policy, has impacted on their lives and outcomes. Despite its richness, the report itself is just the beginning, and provides only a snapshot of the enormous potential that exists for policy-makers and researchers to use GUI data to answer a whole range of questions about childhood in Ireland.”