New Growing Up in Ireland research highlights how lives of 9-year-olds and their families were affected by the recession

The associated publications are linked at the end of this page.

Growing Up in Ireland today (8 November 2018) publishes a series of four Key Findings – short reports on the lives of 9-year-olds and how they are faring in important areas of their lives and how their lives have changed since the children were 5 years of age. These reports are being launched by the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Dr Katherine Zappone, TD, at the 10th Annual Growing Up in Ireland Research Conference.

Nine years of age is a relatively stable time in the children’s lives. They have settled into primary school and are not yet subject to the pressures of exams that come with their move to second level. However, this group of 9-year-olds spent many of their early years in a period of great economic uncertainty, when Ireland was in the depths of the Great Recession. These reports will help to inform policymakers and others involved in providing services for children and their families on how they are faring and how best to assist and support them.

These Key Findings reports analyse the data from the 7,563 children and families that participated in the Growing Up in Ireland survey at 9 months old (in 2008-09), at 3 years, 5 years and 9 years (in 2017/18). Growing Up in Ireland (GUI) is the national longitudinal study of children. It is funded by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, with a contribution from The Atlantic Philanthropies. The study is managed and overseen by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs in association with the Central Statistics Office. It is carried out by a consortium of researchers led by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) and Trinity College Dublin.

Family circumstances

Big improvement since 2013 in ability of families to make ends meet – but the rising tide is not lifting all equally

  • There was a doubling in the number of families who had difficulty making ends meet between the time the child was 9 months old in 2008/09 and the time the child was 5 years old in 2013 (from 12% to 25%). The figure had dropped to 12% by 2017-18 when the Study Child was 9.
  • Levels of financial stress in the families of 9-year-olds were much higher in one-parent families than two-parent families (27% vs. 10% had difficulties making ends meet).
  • 45% of children were in families where the mother reported an improvement in financial circumstances between the ages of 5 and 9.  This figure was lower for one-parent families (36% improved).

Most parents report high levels of closeness with their children

  • Nearly nine out of ten 9-year-olds lived with both parents (87%) and 13% lived in one-parent families.
  • Using a scale that measures closeness between parents and their children (e.g. sharing an affectionate warm relationship), 45% of mothers reported the highest possible closeness score and the level of closeness was high across both one-parent and two-parent families and across income groups.
  • Children in one-parent families were the most likely to live in households with low levels of income and maternal education. They were twice as likely as those in two-parent families to have mothers in the lowest education category (18% vs. 9%) and were nearly three times as likely to be in the lowest family income group (43% vs. 15%).

 Grandparents were an important part of family life for most 9-year-olds

  • Over two-thirds saw their grandparent(s) at least once a week and, according to mothers’ reports, 88% had a close relationship with at least one grandparent.
  • In over one-fifth of two-parent families where both parents were employed, grandparents were usually responsible for taking care of a child too sick to attend school. Care for a sick child was provided by a grandparent in 28% of employed one-parent families.


 9-year-olds generally had positive attitudes to school and school subjects such as Reading

  • 33% of 9-year-olds reported that they always liked school; 62% sometimes liked school and just 5% never liked school.
  • Attitudes to the school subjects Reading and Maths were generally positive but attitudes to Irish were less positive: 62% always liked Reading; 48% always liked Maths and 22% always liked Irish.

There has been a drop in reading for fun since 2007 among children in low-income families

  • 70% of 9-year-olds reported reading for fun several times a week. This was higher among those in the highest-income families (77%) than in the lowest-income families (62%).
  • Children in families with lower income or lower levels of maternal education were likely to read for fun infrequently (that is, less than once a week).
  • It was possible to compare this group of 9-year-olds interviewed in 2017 to an earlier group who were 9 years old in 2007 (Cohort ’98). Comparing the two groups, there was overall stability in children’s reports of how often they read for fun. However, there appeared to be a drop in reading for fun among those in socially-disadvantaged families. For instance, 19% of 9-year-olds in the lowest-income families in 2007 infrequently read for fun (that is, less than once a week) but the rate was 24% for the 9-year-olds in the lowest-income families in 2017.

Over half of mothers of 9-year-olds paid a voluntary contribution to their child’s primary school

  • 59% of families of 9-year-olds paid a voluntary contribution to their child’s primary school; 7% were asked for a contribution but did not pay; 34% were not asked for a contribution. Overall, 23% of families paid less than €50; 23% paid between €50 and €99 and 12% paid €100 or more.
  • 24% of families in the highest income group paid a voluntary contribution of €100 or more, compared to 5% of families in the lowest income group.

Over one-fifth of parents had already put their child’s name down for a second level school

  • Just over one-fifth (21%) of mothers of 9-year-olds reported that they had already put their child’s name down for a second-level school. The figure was 40% for mothers in the highest-income group (vs. 11% in lowest-income group) and was higher in urban than in rural areas (33% vs 11%).

Physical health

One-in-eight 9-year-olds were hampered by a longstanding health condition or disability

  • Most (77%) 9-year-olds did not have a longstanding condition, illness or disability, as reported by their mothers, and a further 11% had a condition but were not hampered by it. Just 10% had a condition and were considered to be hampered to some extent and another 2% had a condition and were hampered severely.
  • The most common long-standing conditions, according to the mothers, were respiratory conditions (such as asthma), mental/behavioural conditions (e.g. ADHD) and skin conditions.
  • The percentage of children hampered by a longstanding condition increased with age and has been higher for boys than girls at each age, rising from 6% to 16% for boys and 4% to 9% for girls between the ages of 3 and 9.
  • Most 9-year-olds were not overweight (78%); 17% were overweight and 5% were obese. Since they were 5 years old, the percentage overweight or obese had increased slightly (from 20% to 22%). At age 9 (as at age 5), girls were more likely than boys to be overweight/obese (23% vs. 21%).
  • There were substantial inequalities in being overweight/obese, with a rate of 32% in the lowest income group compared to 14% in the highest income group.

Diet was generally healthy but with a relatively high consumption of some treat foods

  • According to mothers’ reports, each of the following was consumed in the previous 24 hours by at least three quarters of the 9-year-olds: Meat/chicken/fish; bread; potatoes/pasta/rice; fresh fruit; cereals and cooked vegetables.
  • Over half of mothers reported that the 9-year-olds consumed fruit at least twice in the last 24 hours (57%). The rate was lower for families in the lowest income group (49% vs 64% in highest income group.)
  • Fruit consumption was higher in this cohort of 9-year-olds interviewed in 2017 than in an earlier group who were 9 years old in 2007 (Cohort ’98): 57% of 9-year-olds in 2017 vs. 38% of those in 2007 ate fresh fruit at least twice in the previous 24 hours.
  • ‘Treat’ foods are those generally recommended to be eaten “at most twice a week.”[1] The most frequently consumed in the previous 24 hours were biscuits/cake (72%), crisps or savoury snacks (51%), sugared soft drinks (39%) and chips/fries (34%).

[1] Department of Health, Healthy Food for Life – the Healthy Eating Guidelines and Food Pyramid, Department of Health, 2016.

Only one-quarter of 9-year-olds reached the recommended level of physical activity

  • Only one-quarter of 9-year-olds reported being physically active for at least 60 minutes every single day – the World Health Organisation recommended level of activity for children.
  • As expected, the rate is higher for boys than girls (28% vs. 22%).
  • There were no differences by income and mother’s education in meeting the 60 minutes of physical activity every day – 25% of all groups meet the 7-day-per week target. However, those in more socially advantaged families were likely to be closer to the target (i.e. active on more days per week but not every day). For instance, 26% of those in the highest-income category were physically active on 5 to 6 days per week, compared to only 20% in the lowest-income category.

Screen time and online profiles

  • Over 90% of 9-year-olds spent at least some time watching TV/DVDs on both weekend and weekdays. 15% of them spent 2 or more hours watching TV/DVDs on a weekday. In addition, 9% spent over two hours on other types of screen-based activities (such as on a computer) on a weekday.
  • Mothers reported that 23% of 9-year-olds had an online profile, 26% of boys and 21% of girls. Boys’ profiles were largely related to computer gaming and girls’ more often related to social media.
  • Most mothers reported having rules to manage their 9-year-olds’ screen time, including rules about content (71%), the total time spent on devices (69%) and the time of day the child used the device (53%). 59% of mothers reported engaging the child in alternative activities to reduce screen time.

Emotional wellbeing

Emotional and behavioural difficulties often improve over time

  • A series of questions answered by their parents (the “Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire”) allowed identification of the 9-year-olds who had more socio-emotional and behavioural problems than their peers (i.e. the top 10% of scores). This was true of more boys than girls (14% vs. 9%).
  • Those who had been classified as having more socio-emotional and behavioural problems at age 5 were more likely to have such problems at age 9 (45% vs. just 7% of those not classified as having a high level of problems at age 5). Nevertheless, more than half of those with such difficulties at age 5 no longer had such difficulties at age 9.
  • Between 3 and 9 years of age, there was even more change. Overall, 3% of children were identified as having a high level of socio-emotional and behavioural difficulties at all three ages (3, 5 and 9 years) but a much larger group (21%) had them at one or two of the ages, but not all three. This suggests that such difficulties may often be transitory in nature.

Experiencing several stressful life events increased the risk of emotional difficulties

  • Most (59%) 9-year olds had experienced one or more of a set of 14 specific stressful life events since age 5. The most commonly reported events were the death of a close family member (other than a parent, 37%), moving house (15%) and a serious illness of a family member (14%).
  • One-third (36%) had experienced one stressful event, 15% had experienced two and 8% had experienced 3 or more.
  • Almost a quarter of children who had experienced three or more stressful events were in the group with the most socio-emotional and behavioural difficulties (i.e. top 10%), compared to 8% of those who experienced no stressful event.

Speaking at today’s launch of the report Professor Dorothy Watson from the ESRI said:

The Key Findings reports point to an overall positive picture of children’s development at 9 years of age in terms of health, learning and their relationships with parents and grandparents. Nevertheless, there are some areas of concern, such as the low rate of meeting the physical activity targets, evidence of significant inequalities (poorer outcomes for children in socially-disadvantaged families), and a tendency for negative outcomes (including emotional difficulties) to persist in a child’s life. The Key Findings point to the value of the Growing Up in Ireland project to increasing our understanding of the lives of children in order to develop better policies to promote their well-being.

Speaking at today’s event, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Dr Katherine Zappone, TD, said:

“These new findings from the latest round of Growing Up in Ireland, from data collected in 2017, provide important insights into the lives of 9 year olds. They also provide us with direct access to the voice of the child. While most 9 year olds are doing well there are also areas of concern which will require action. The evidence of inequalities, with some children from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds doing less well in a number of areas, does require attention. As Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, ensuring equality of opportunity is my priority. This must apply to every child.  Early intervention and prevention and a whole of Government approach are needed to tackle child poverty. I am committed to building on the work already underway. These latest findings also demonstrates the breadth of data collected as part of the GUI study and the many opportunities for further research in key domains such as health, education, relationships and family. Such evidence will help us make decisions, informed with the views of children, into the future.”


Health and physical development

9-year-olds and their families

Relationships and socio-emotional wellbeing

School and learning