Ireland’s teens: Landmark report sheds light on how lives of 13-year-olds have changed dramatically

ESRI report finds today’s young teens have fewer friends, greater peer problems and increased emotional difficulties

Young adolescents have “greater peer problems” and fewer friends than their counterparts a decade ago, with girls especially experiencing “increased emotional difficulties”, a landmark report published on Tuesday finds.

The report from the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) says teenage girls’ increased emotional issues are negatively impacting their relations with peers and parents – particularly their mothers – and their engagement with education.

Titled The Changing Social Worlds of 13-Year-Olds, the report finds girls are spending more time online than boys – a reversal of the situation a decade earlier.

Drawing on data from two cohorts of children, born in 1998 and 2008, in the longitudinal Growing Up in Ireland study, the report analyses their lives at age 13 in 2011/12 and 2021/22 respectively. The decade between was one of “considerable social and policy change, including reform of the junior cycle, growing digitalisation and the disruption of the pandemic”, leading to “very significant changes in the lives of 13-year-olds”, it says.

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Positively, there are “lower levels of conflict” between the latter cohort and their parents, who are now less likely to take punitive approaches, such as grounding or shouting, to behavioural issues and more likely to explain to the child what they did wrong.

However, there was a “relative increase in mother-daughter conflict” related to the “greater increase in emotional difficulties for girls”, while rows between mothers and sons saw a decline. “The level of emotional difficulties is found to account for about two-thirds of the relative increase in mother-daughter conflict over time.”

Overall, parent/13-year-old conflict is more likely in lone-parent families, those living in rented accommodation, with “financial strain associated with much higher levels of conflict”, and where the child is disabled.

The latter cohort have “smaller friendship groups” and fewer close friends, and the “quality of peer engagement, at least as reported by mothers, has worsened over time, with greater peer problems evident”.

The proportion having two or fewer friends increased from 8.1 per cent in the 1998 cohort to 12.4 per cent in the latter group, while 6.4 per cent in the earlier group had none or just one close friend, increasing to 7.5 per cent.

There was “a very significant shift over time” in screen time on phones or tablets. While almost half (46 per cent) of those in the 1998 cohort “did not engage in screen time”, this fell to less than 10 per cent among the latter cohort.

“Spending three or more hours on screens increased from 15 per cent to 31 per cent,” continues the report. And while girls spent less time online than boys in the 1998 cohort, 10 years on the situation had flipped, with 38 per cent of girls spending two or more hours online compared with a quarter of boys.

At school, those saying they like school “very much” fell from 29 per cent to 21 per cent, with accompanying increases in liking school “quite a bit” or a “bit”. Numbers disliking or hating school remained around 11 per cent. While girls have a “more positive” attitude to school generally, there has been “a significant narrowing of the gender gap”, says the report. “Emotional difficulties negatively impact on girls’ school engagement ... to a much greater extent among the younger cohort.”

Feelings about school are less positive among young people in lone-parent families and rented accommodation, and particularly “among those with a disability”.

A majority of 13 year-olds participate in a weekly activity, though between a fifth and a quarter do not, with participation “lower among those whose families report difficulty making ends meet” and lowest among disabled young people.

The study was not intended to examine the impact of the pandemic and school closures on the latter cohort of teens. “Nonetheless, the findings point to poorer peer relations and more emotional difficulties among this cohort, especially among girls. There is tentative evidence that this gendered pattern of emotional difficulties is linked to greater relative conflict with parents and less-positive views of school among girls,” it says.

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