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Growing up in Ireland: Latest results from study give in-depth look at lives of country's nine-year-olds

The new report looks at the lives of young people who were aged nine in 2017/2018.

Image: Shutterstock/LeManna

THE MAJORITY OF nine-year-olds in Ireland get on well with their parents and like their teachers, but their health and well-being are strongly linked to their family circumstances. 

The long-term Government study ‘Growing up in Ireland‘ has published a new report on the lives of young people who were aged nine in 2017/2018 and who had been followed by the researchers since they were nine months old. 

The latest report is based mainly on interviews with just over 8,000 nine-year-olds and their parents. The children were first surveyed when they were aged nine months, and again when they were three and five years old.

The interviews for this report were carried out in a period of economic recovery (2017/18), marking the first wave of data collected with these children and their families since the recession, but before the current Covid-19 pandemic hit. 

The results throw up some interesting findings. 

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 (such as music and drama) and boys more engaged in team sports. 

Here’s a breakdown of the main findings… 

Physical health and development 

  • Almost all nine-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 nine, while those in two-parent and higher social class families were likely to be consistently healthy at ages three, five and nine.
  • One quarter of children had a longstanding illness, condition or disease, an increase from 16% at age three and 19% at age five; asthma was the most common such illness (9%).
  • Almost one-quarter of nine-year-olds were overweight or obese; 18% were overweight and 5% were obese.
  • Overweight/obesity was higher among 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.
  • 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.

Socio-emotional development, wellbeing 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).
  • 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.
  • 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.

Play and activities

  • The more request reported favourite activities among nine-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).
  • Only one-quarter of children said they were physically active every day. In contract, the majority of parents reported that their child was active on most days.
  • Almost all children had access to the internet, more commonly using a tablet/iPad than a smartphone or games console; more than two-thirds said they owned the device.
  • Around half (53%) of nine-year-olds said they were allowed to use the internet without a parent/adult checking what they were doing.

Family structure and economic circumstance

  • In terms of family structure, 76% of nine-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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

“In terms of socio-emotional outcomes, the nine-year-old data show the majority of children enjoying relationships that are warm, close and low in conflict with their parents at this stage,” the report’s co-lead author Dr Desmond O’Mahony said. 

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“These are encouraging and strongly protective factors in socio-emotional development, which is going well for a large proportion of the children,” Dr O’Mahony said. 

“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,” he said. 

Co-lead author Dr Eoin McNamara noted that whilst today’s report references the experiences of the children before the 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”. 

Growing up in Ireland is a government-funded study of children being carried out jointly by the ESRI and Trinity College Dublin, managed by the Department of Children. 

The study started in 2006 and follows the progress of a total of 8,000 children. 

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