The Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI), in partnership with the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Inclusion and Youth (DCEDIY), recently published a detailed report on the lives of nine-year-olds. The report draws on data from the Growing Up in Ireland (GUI) study. This study compared nine-year-olds in 2007/8 and 2017/18, which was a period of considerable social and policy change. In particular, it looked at changes to children’s relationships with family and friends, their pastimes and their school experiences.
The report found a number of striking changes in terms of family structure. Parents of today’s nine-year-olds are more likely to have degrees and families are more linguistically and culturally diverse. Mothers and fathers report greater closeness to their children over time, but mothers also report increased conflict. Eating together as a family every day has become less common, declining from 72% in 2007/8 to 67% in 2017/18.
Nine-year-olds are broadly positive about school, with an increase in the proportion always liking it (from 27% in 2007/8 to 33% in 2017/18). 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. Around a quarter see their friends outside school almost every day. The report states that changes have been found in children’s pastimes, with a decline 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%).
The proportion of nine-year-olds who have their own mobile phone significantly increased (from 44% in 2007/8 to 54% in 2017/18). The study also found a marked shift time spent watching television towards spending time on digital devices. Those spending more time watching TV and using computers are less likely to engage in sports, reading for pleasure and cultural pursuits. Owning a mobile phone is also associated with less time reading and lower levels of involvement in cultural activities.
The social worlds of nine-year-olds are quite different for girls and boys and these gender differences persist over time. The relationships girls have with their parents suffers less conflict than those of boys. On the other hand, girls tend to have smaller friendship groups and see their friends less often. Whilst girls are more likely to read for pleasure and engage in cultural activities, they are less likely to take part in sports. The report also found that 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.
Children’s lives are strongly influenced by the socio-economic situation of their families. More parent-child conflict occurs and children tend to have smaller friendship groups where families are under financial strain. Children from more advantaged families are more likely to be involved in sports and this social gap widens over time. Social background differences in reading for pleasure become more pronounced over time, with a decline in daily reading for all children except those with graduate parents.
Implications on Policy
The findings from this study have significant implications for policy. Gender and social background differences in children’s activities emerge early. This suggests the importance of Early Years in providing access to a variety of engaging activities for girls and boys and across all social groups. Schools, and School Age Care services, can also play an important role in encouraging physical exercise among children. However the findings also highlight the need for community-based facilities, given the constraints small schools face in providing extracurricular sports.
Launching the report, the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Inclusion and Youth, Roderic O’Gorman T.D., again highlighted the €1.025 billion in funding which was made available under Budget 2023 for early learning and School Age childcare. “This will bring transformative change to this vital sector and ensure high quality early learning and care that is affordable, accessible and inclusive.” he said.
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