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Just over half of nine-year-olds own a phone, up 10% on ten years ago

The report has compared the lives of nine-year-olds in 2007/8 and nine-year-olds in 2017/18.

LAST UPDATE | 21 Nov 2022

JUST OVER HALF of nine-year-olds in Ireland own a phone, up 10% on 10 years ago, new research shows. 

The ESRI and the Department of Children have published a new report drawing data from the long-term Government study ‘Growing up in Ireland‘. 

The report has compared the lives of nine-year-olds in 2007/8 and nine-year-olds in 2017/18. It draws on the surveys of the children and their parents, as well as time-use diaries completed by the children. 

The results throw up some interesting findings. 

A significant increase was found in the number of nine-year-olds who have their own mobile phone (up from 44% to 54% over the 10-year period). 

There is also a marked shift in the amount of time watching television towards time on other digital devices. Those spending more time watching TV and using computers are less likely to engage in sports, reading for pleasure and cultural activities, the report shows.

Here’s a breakdown of the main findings.

Family changes

The findings show a shift in the profile of children and their families.

  • Parents are more likely to have third-level degrees (increasing from 26% to 39%)
  • Mothers and fathers report greater closeness to their children over time, but mothers also report increased conflict. The majority of children report being very close to their mothers and fathers but this is lower for the younger cohort: declining from 86% to 80% for mothers and 83% to 77% for fathers.
  • Eating together as a family every day has become less common, declining from 72% to 67%.
  • More children are reported to have illnesses or disabilities (increasing from 11% to 24%).


  • Nine-year-olds are broadly positive about school, with an increase over time in the amount of children always liking it (from 27% to 33%).
  • Attitudes to school subjects, including reading and Maths, remain largely unchanged.
  • Nine-year-olds typically have two or three close friends, but the numbers with a larger network of six or more friends has increased over time (from 17% to 25%).
  • Around a quarter see their friends outside school almost every day and this has stayed stable over time.
  • Changes have been found in children’s pastimes, with a drop in those taking part in sports (from 44% to 34% playing sport almost every day) and cultural activities (such as music or dance lessons – from 47% to 44%).
  • A significant increase was found in the proportion of nine-year-olds who have their own mobile phone (from 44% to 54%).

Gender differences

The social worlds of nine-year-olds are quite different for girls and boys and these gender differences persist over time, the report outlines.

Girls have closer and less conflictual relations with their parents than boys but have smaller friendship groups and see their friends less often, it says.

They are more likely to read for pleasure and engage in cultural activities but less likely to take part in sports.

Girls also spend less time on digital devices than boys.

They are more positive about school overall but less positive about Maths, and gender differences in attitudes to Maths widen over time. 

Socio-economic situation

Children’s lives are strongly influenced by the socio-economic situation of their families.

Children tend to have smaller friendship groups where families are under financial strain, it says.

Children from more advantaged families are more likely to be involved in sports and this social gap widens over time, the study shows. 

Policy implications

The report says that the findings have significant implications for policy.

Gender and social background differences in children’s activities emerge early in their lives, the research shows, suggesting the importance of all social groups, and boys and girls, being provided with access to a variety of engaging activities during their early years. 

Schools can play an important role in encouraging physical exercise among children, but the findings also highlight the need for community-based facilities, given the constraints for small schools in provision of extracurricular sports.

“‘There are concerning trends in children’s involvement in sports, cultural pursuits and reading, activities that enhance their development,” report author Professor Emer Smyth said. 

“Subsidised provision of sports and cultural activities for more disadvantaged groups could help encourage participation,” she said.

“Continued efforts on the part of schools and libraries will be crucial in trying to reverse the decline in reading for pleasure found among many groups of children.”

Launching the report, Minister for Children Roderic O’Gorman said €1.025 billion in funding was made available under Budget 2023 for early learning and care and school-aged childcare. 

He noted that cultural initiatives, such as My Little Library, could make a difference to children. 

“This initiative offers a book bag with books and resources to every four and five-year-old starting school with the aim to encourage children to read for pleasure,” O’Gorman said. 

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