Original article published here
Australian girls are hitting puberty as young as eight, sparking concern about the social and physical ramifications and “baffling” lack of sex education in schools.
The research suggests both boys and girls are maturing earlier than ever before and the flow-on effects go beyond just pimples and peer pressure.
So what exactly is happening and why does it matter? And just as importantly, are Australians too coy when tackling the topic of puberty and growing up?
First to the stats
A 2015 Australian study found 40 per cent of girls and 21 per cent of boys aged 8-9 were already showing some signs of puberty.
The research — completed by the Government’s Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS) — considered things like skin change, breast growth, menstruation and body hair to aid its findings.
Professor Timothy Olds from the School of Health Sciences at the University of South Australia also found puberty was beginning earlier than before.
“At the beginning of last century, puberty would start around 15 or 16 … now we’re seeing at 12 or even younger,” he said.
Journalist and author Amanda Dunn has compiled the most recent research in a new book, The New Puberty, and traced the issue back almost 200 years.
“Originally when the age of a girl’s first period dropped, it was because of improved nutrition,” she told News Breakfast.
“So since sort of the time of industrialisation, that had been because of improved nutrition.
“But of course we know that we’ve kind of tipped the scales in the other direction now.”
Why is this a problem?
Because this early puberty has been linked to a range of negative outcomes.
Having found a large portion of kids were hitting puberty early, the AIFS study also cited other research in the same field, which among other things has found:
- “Both boys and girls who entered puberty early (at age 8-9) had poorer psychosocial adjustment from early childhood through to early adolescence.”
- “Developmental readiness theory suggests that early-maturing adolescents are more likely to have psychological and behavioural problems because these individuals are not emotionally or cognitively ready for the physical and social changes accompanying puberty.”
Early puberty has also been linked to poverty, with a report from the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute finding boys from poor backgrounds were four times more likely to hit puberty by age 10, and girls from those backgrounds were twice as likely.
One of the report’s senior authors, George Patten, found:
“Early maturation has links in girls with emotional, behavioural and social problems during adolescence including depressive disorders, substance disorders, eating disorders and precocious sexuality,” Dr Patten said.
Can we address the social aspects?
For Ms Dunn, the effects of early puberty go beyond the medical outcomes and speaks to a need for greater sexual education.
She is calling for sex-ed to be compulsory in all Australian schools and said it could begin as early as the middle primary school years.
“In Australia it’s stipulated in the national curriculum but states implement the curriculum at different paces,” she said.
“It means that a kid going through school in Queensland or WA can go all the way through their school without having a single sex-ed class because it’s not mandated by the state government.
“It just is baffling to me. I mean, if this was maths or English we’d be horrified, right?”
A growing number of initiatives are now trying to re-educate adults who have gone through an ineffective or non-existent sex education program at school.
According to Ms Dunn, discussing the topic of changing bodies at home could also go a long way to helping kids.
And this means parents should be mindful of how they talk about it.
“If [kids] get the sense of a negative response or if they get the sense that it’s something we don’t talk about or they mustn’t ask those sort of questions, then now in their heads, it’s something a bit dirty and a bit naughty,” she said.
“I think Australians have underestimated how coy we are on some issues.
“But privacy becomes shame really, really easily if we don’t keep an eye on it and I think that’s what’s happened with puberty and development.”