New Growing Up in Ireland research highlights challenges experienced by 13-year-olds in Ireland

Growing Up in Ireland today publishes a new report on the lives of 13-year-olds and how they are faring in important areas of their lives. It also considers how their lives have changed since the children were 9 years of age. The report is being launched by the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Dr Katherine Zappone, TD, at an event held in the ESRI.

Thirteen years of age is an important time of transition and change for young people as they undergo many emotional and physical changes in their lives and also make the transition from primary to second-level schools. This report will help to inform policymakers and others involved in providing services for 13-year-olds on how they are faring and how best to assist and support them as they enter their teenage years.

The report is based on interviews completed with over 7,400 young people and their families when the children were 13 years old in 2012 and when they were 9 years old in 2007/08.

Physical health

Most 13-year-olds were in good physical health but there is evidence of health inequalities

  • Most 13-year-olds are in good physical health – 76% were reported by their parents as being very healthy and 23% as healthy but a few minor problems.
  • However, parents from more disadvantaged backgrounds were somewhat more likely to report that their 13-year-old had some form of health problem: 22% of parents in the highest social class reported some form of health problems compared to 33% in the lowest social class. 

Weight issues established in early childhood can be difficult to reverse

  • Overweight and obesity continued to be a problem at 13 years of age, with 20% of 13-year-olds being overweight and 6% obese.
  • Girls were significantly more likely than boys to be overweight or obese (30% compared with 24%).
  • Overweight and obesity levels were high across all 13-year-olds but there were strong differences according to family background. 21% of 13-year-olds from the highest social class (Professional/Managerial) were overweight or obese compared with 32% from the lowest social class (Never employed).
  • Although there was some change in the weight status of individual children between 9 and 13 years, weight status at 9 years was strongly related to status by 13.  The report shows that once weight status problems were established in earlier childhood they were difficult (but not impossible) to reverse.
  • There is a certain level of misperception among the 13-year-olds themselves regarding their weight status.  For example, 21% of the 13-year-olds whose measurements indicated that they were obese described themselves as being ‘Just the right size’ or ‘Very/A bit skinny’.
  • Girls were less likely to take part in physical exercise than boys. Children from disadvantaged family backgrounds were less likely to participate in organised sport and physical activity.


A child’s early experiences of school have a lasting effect

  • Overall, the report found that children had a positive attitude to school and teachers: 29% of 13-year-olds liked school very much and a further 33% liked it quite a bit.
  • Girls liked school more than boys did.  Attitudes also varied significantly by the 13-year-old’s family background – 34% of 13-year-olds whose main caregiver had degree-level qualifications liked school very much compared with 24% of those whose main caregiver had left school at Junior Certificate level.
  • Most 13-year-olds reported a high level of positive interactions with teachers (70% were often or very often praised for their work).
  • Positive and negative interactions with teachers can have a lasting impact.  Those children who had positive interactions with teachers (such as often being praised) or who liked school at 9 years of age were more likely to continue to like school when they were 13.

School performance at 13 years was strongly related to family background and to performance at age 9

  • The 13-year-olds completed three types of verbal reasoning and numerical ability tests in the course of their interview.  Performance on these tests was highest among children from more socially advantaged families (measured in terms of family income, mother’s education and social class).
  • Performance on comparable tests which were completed by the children when they were 9 years of age had a moderately strong relationship with their performance at 13, pointing to considerable continuity in ability in these important areas between 9 and 13 years.

Family Situation, Relationships and Emotional Wellbeing

Most 13-year-olds lived in two-parent families and parent-child relationships are good

  • 81% of 13-year-olds lived in two-parent families.  Most had experienced no change in terms of family structure since 9 years of age but approximately 5 per cent changed from two-parent to one-parent and 3 per cent from one-parent to two-parent families.  9% of 13-year-olds had a new birth in the family since they were 9 years of age.
  • Based on a widely used set of questions which were completed by parents, most parents have a very positive relationship with their 13-year-old, with very high scores for closeness and low scores for conflict between parent and child.

13-year-olds from one-parent families and from lower-educational backgrounds had poorer socio-emotional wellbeing

  • Based on a series of questions (The “Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire”) answered by their parents, the socio-emotional and behavioural well-being of 13-year-olds is generally good and very similar to levels from UK studies.
  • Based on the answers to this set of questions 13-year-olds with certain characteristics and from some family backgrounds were more likely than others to be classified as being at risk of socio-emotional and behavioural problems. These included, for example, children who were growing up in one-parent families and those who came from families with lower levels of maternal education.
  • Although there was a difference in the risk of socio-emotional and behavioural problems between boys and girls at 9 years of age (boys were more likely to be at risk than girls when they were 9 years old) this difference was not evident by age 13.
  • Parental separation between 9 and 13 years of age was associated with double the chance of the 13-year-old being classified as being at risk of socio-emotional and behavioural problems (21% compared to 10% of those not experiencing parental separation).

Friendship and bullying

  • 37% of 13-year-olds reported having 3-5 friends, 35% reported having 6-9 friends and 19% reported having 10 or more friends.  In most cases parents had met all of their 13-year-old’s friends.
  • About 10% of 13-year-olds reported that they had been bullied in the 3 months before their interview and 2% said they had bullied someone else.  Boys and girls were about equally likely to have been bullied.  Having been bullied was associated with a higher risk of socio-emotional and behavioural problems.

Risky Behaviours

Levels of smoking, drinking and drug-taking were highest among socially disadvantaged groups

  • Approximately 9% of 13-year-olds said that they had ever smoked.  There was no difference in the levels reported by boys and girls. Levels were highest among those from lower social class and lower education backgrounds.
  • 16% of 13-year-olds reported that they had ever had an alcoholic drink – other than a few sips, with a higher rate among boys than girls (17% and 14% respectively).
  • For both smoking and drinking the percentage of 13-year-olds who reported currently smoking and currently drinking was considerably lower than the percentage who reported having ever smoked or taken an alcoholic drink.  This suggests that some of this activity may have been of an experimental rather than habitual nature.
  • Just over 1% of 13-year-olds reported having ever used cannabis and 3% having ever sniffed glue.  Even fewer recorded that they had ever used other illicit drugs.

Speaking at today’s launch of the report Professor James Williams from the ESRI said:

This report highlights some of the key issues relating to this important time in a young person’s life, as they face into the many challenges posed by their teenage years.  It also underlines the invaluable input which the Growing Up in Ireland project can make to developing policies and interventions to support all young people growing up in modern Ireland.  The report highlights significant inequalities in certain aspects of children’s lives. Children from more socially disadvantaged backgrounds are at higher risk of poorer outcomes in terms of their physical health; their education and schooling; and their emotional and behavioural well-being.

Speaking at today’s event, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Dr Katherine Zappone, TD, said:
I welcome this new report from Growing Up in Ireland, the national longitudinal study funded mainly by my Department.   The report provides important insights into the lives of 13-year-olds in Ireland. In many respects most children are doing well across key areas of their lives relating to health, education, family and general well-being.  But the report also highlights some difficulties, and important differences related to family background, with some children from more socially disadvantaged backgrounds doing less well in a number of respects.

The report serves to remind us how developmental trends evident at 13 are often evident earlier in childhood and can be difficult to reverse.  This new data is invaluable and it reinforces our efforts to intervene well and to intervene early - so that we can ensure positive outcomes for all children.