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Revealed: the life of a 13-year-old growing up in Ireland

Here’s what it’s like to be a young teenager living in Ireland.

THEY GET ON with their parents, they do well in school, they take reasonably high levels of exercise and they spend an average of just under €9 a week – that is how the average 13-year-old is described in the recent Growing Up in Ireland survey.

The findings of the giant research project were revealed this morning by the ESRI, which carried out in-depth interviews with 7,400 13-year-olds and their families about their day-to-day lives. The same subjects had been used for a study on nine-year-olds in 2007/2008.

The fresh research revealed that the recession has had a substantial effect on families with children over the past few years as the number of people with financial difficulties doubled. Sometimes, this has impacted on fundamental aspects of their lives.

Four different areas – education, physical activity and obesity, family life and financial circumstances and relationships and behaviours – were examined.

Physical Activity and Obesity

  • Boys are more likely to exercise than girls;
  • It was more common for those from more socially advantaged backgrounds to have higher levels of exercise;
  • 60 per cent exercised six or more days in the fortnight prior to the interview;
  • More than one quarter were either overweight (20 per cent) or obese (6 per cent);
  • Girls were more likely to be overweight or obese (Girls 30 per cent v Boys 23 per cent);
  • Most young people maintained a healthy body weight;
  • There were some changes in weight status between the ages of nine and 13 but only 11 per cent of non-overweight nine-year-olds had developed weight problems by aged 13;
  • Those with weight problems at 9 maintained them into their teens. Eleven per cent became obese;
  • Girls were more likely than boys to maintain weight problems;
  • Dieting behaviours were evident with girls more likely to report that they were trying to lose weight;
  • Children with weight issues were trying to do something about it – 78 per cent of children who were obese were exercising to lose weight (compared to 39 per cent of those who were not overweight or obese).

Family Life

  • About one in five 13-year-olds live in one-parent families;
  • In general, the structure of families is stable over time, though there have been changes from one-parent families to two-parent families and vice-versa over the four years between interview;
  • About 4 per cent of children in the age-group went from a two-parent to one-parent family in the four-year period while another 4 per cent went from a one-parent to two-parent unit;
  • Almost all of the subjects said they got on well with their parents;
  • The majority feel that their parents spend time talking to them, could be counted on if they had a problem, did fun things with them and respected their privacy;
  • More talking is done with Mums that Dads but more fun things are done with Dad.

Sex, cigarettes and alcohol

  • Just under half have discussed sex and relationship issues with their parents (Girls 51 per cent v Boys 42 per cent);
  • Dads get away without having to give ‘the talk’ with just 6 per cent being the main source of information;
  • Only 2 per cent said they smoked but another 7 per cent have tried it at some point;
  • A slightly higher percentage of girls than boys said they smoked;
  • 15 per cent said they had tried alcohol with boys and girls showing similar rates;
  • Only a tiny proportion (about 0.5 per cent) said they drank once a month or more;
  • 83 per cent have regular spending money – an average of just under €9 per week;
  • Girls were more likely than boys to say they get spending money for doing chores.


  • The subjects were broadly positive about school and teachers;
  • Girls were much more positive about school than boys;
  • Teens from more advantaged backgrounds were also more positive;
  • 13-year-olds in first year are more positive about school than those in second year;
  • Young people who had a more positive attitude to school when they were in primary were generally more likely to have a positive attitude in secondary and to be more engaged with school generally;
  • ‘Messing’ was the most common form of misbehaviour in school, along with breaking school rules;
  • All misbehaviours were more common among boys;
  • Students in second year had a higher level of misbehaviour than first year with detention more common;
  • Most parents knew what was going on in the child’s school and how he/she was getting on in various subjects;
  • Mothers seemed to know a little bit more about what was going on in school for their daughters than for their sons;
  • Most parents are engaged with their child’s school – 88 per cent attended a parent-teacher meeting and 62 per cent had attended a concert or play;
  • Parents had much higher expectations than their children about the child’s highest level of educational achievement;
  • Three out of four mothers expected their child to achieve a degree or higher, whereas one in two 13-year-olds expected this level of educational attainment for themselves.
  • Parental expectations about how far their child would go in the education system were linked to their own attainment.

Financial and Economic Circumstances

  • Three in five mothers work outside the home, while about one third were engaged in home duties and 3 per cent were unemployed;
  • A quarter of mothers who were engaged in home duties when the child was nine-years-old worked outside the home when the child was 13;
  • Better-educated mothers were much more likely to work outside the home than others;
  • More than 60 per cent of families were experiencing difficulties in making ends meet – double the number from four years ago;
  • The same pertcenage said the recession had a significant effect on them, including wage reductions and social welfare reductions;
  • More than half said they could not afford luxuries anymore, while just under one third said they can’t afford or cut back on basics;
  • 13 per cent are behind with utility bills and 11 per cent are in rent/mortgage arrears.

Professor James Williams, Research Professor at the ESRI and Principal Investigator of the Growing Up in Ireland project, said, “The release of today’s findings gives a first glimpse at the longitudinal trends in the lives of 13-year-olds as they make a number of very important transitions into adolescence and second-level education.

“This is a period in the 13-year-old’s life which involves a lot of physical, emotional and psychological change and experiences. This study gives us new insights into how they and their families are faring in Ireland and provides us, for the first time, with a wealth of information about change at an individual and family level.”

UPDATE: Back in Ireland for first Christmas in 30 years…. what’s it like?

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