Today's Kids Are Hitting Puberty Way Earlier Than Usual—and Scientists Are Worried

There appear to be psychological consequences to this mysterious trend.

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Puberty is happening earlier and earlier for both boys and girls, which has health experts deeply concerned.

Back in the 19th century, the age of puberty for girls—the period of time in which they began developing breasts and typically get their first period–was 16 years-old. In the 1920s, it became 14, then 13 in the 1950s, and 12 in the '80s, which is the age we still tend to associate with puberty for women. Today, however, many young women are hitting the puberty mark at the tender age of 9.

Boys have also followed a similar trajectory, albeit one year behind. The average age of puberty for boys, the period of time when their genitals develop and they begin to grow hair, has been 13 for the last few decades. But a 2012 Harvard study found that boys today are hitting puberty, on average, at 10.

Scientists aren't sure why the puberty is starting younger, though the theories are that it may have to do with an increase in BMI in children, the hormone influences of their diets, and their exposure to environmental chemicals. Because they don't know precisely what causes it, they also aren't sure how to stop it. But the trend is worrying, especially for women, as it is associated with an increased risk of breast cancer, ovarian cancer, obesity, and even diabetes in adult life.

More so than the physical consequences, it's the psychological effects of the plummeting puberty rate that's of concern to scientists. Puberty is difficult enough without having to go through it while you're still a child, and, for girls especially, it can mean that you are treated "as an adult" long before you actually feel like one. It's no wonder that the early age of puberty has therefore been linked to a greater risk of substance abuse and depression later on in life.

Now, a new study, published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, has explored the relationship between this early rate of puberty and body image for the first time. Elizabeth Hughes, Ph.D., the lead author of the study and a research fellow from the Murdoch Children's Research Institute (MCRI) and the University of Melbourne, gathered data from more than 1,100 eight- to nine-year-old Australian girls and boys, and found that the hormonal spurt that comes with puberty has led to a marked decrease in body satisfaction.

"What we have learnt is that pre-pubescent children, as young as eight and nine, are vulnerable to poor body image and the dissatisfaction does appear to be linked to hormone levels associated with the onset of puberty," Hughes said. "Basically the higher the level of hormones, the more unhappy the children were with their body size; however children with heightened levels of hormones also tend to be taller and heavier than their peers, and this could be the cause of their poor body image…It may be that children who are taller, heavier and more physically mature, feel more conspicuous amongst their peers."

Even for those who aren't peeved by the sexualization of children already occurring in pop culture, the idea that girls as young as eight-years-old are already beginning to hate their bodies is concerning to anyone who values the vital innocence that comes with a healthy, traditional childhood. It's also of concern because hitting puberty early has also been linked to an increased risk of eating disorders, especially in girls.

To tackle this issue, Hughes suggests that schools begin to teach children about their bodies earlier in life.

"There may be a need for community and school programs that help young people learn about what underpins good self-esteem, because self-esteem is not solely invested in physical appearance."

Parents should also consider having these discussions with their kids at a younger age than their parents did with them.

For more on this, check out These Are the 20 Most Important Ages of Your Life.

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Diana Bruk
Diana is a senior editor who writes about sex and relationships, modern dating trends, and health and wellness. Read more
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