Puberty starts younger and younger . . . Should we be doing something?

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Developmental experts have been writing about it for years. The age of onset of puberty has been decreasing steadily over the past two decades, now launching children into adolescence at around 8 to 13 for girls and 9 to 14 for boys. Puberty at 8 years old? In the third grade? What is causing this trend in industrialized countries? According to Dr. Fran Ebling of the British Society for Endocrinology, the onset of puberty has never been steady at around age 14 in the Middle Ages, increasing to 17 during the 19th century, and has falling back ever since. Puberty, of course, signals the start of cycles of reproduction, but why should it change over time?

Experts from the American Academy of Pediatrics tell us that the age of onset is controlled by the availability of fat stores in the body. Enough fat in the body signals the brain that there would likely be enough food and nourishment available if reproduction were to happen. In a way, our improved access to food and nutrition has caused this change over the past 20 years. It’s a mixed blessing, our kids may have access to more food, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the food is nutritious, or that the secondary problem of obesity isn’t also leading to earlier puberty. This explains the physical side of the situation, but there is a definite social side to puberty as well.

The expectation among kids to “behave” as if they have entered puberty happens long before the actual physical event. Many parents of a sixth (or younger) grader can offer up a volume of stories of demands their children have made to enter or travel deeper into the digital universe. “If I had a cell phone, I could call you if I miss my bus,” and “I’m the only one at my school who doesn’t have a social media account,” reveal only half of what teens really feel about the demand to participate in social and digital media. Smart phones and social media communications have arguably increased the number of messages and amount of time children communicate with each other each day. Think you’ve solved the problem by eliminating social media from your own computer? That solution still doesn’t affect how other kids talk to your child and the changes in even face-to-face kid communication that have occurred in the social network.

What about messages from the media, presenting near-perfect teen icons that not only have their own clothing line but can also sing in perfect pitch as well? Of course, the teen icons haven’t changed over the generations, but the amount of access the advertising media has to children has increased greatly. Studies by social psychologists point out how many more advertising messages reach each child each day. An analysis of those ads and messages would probably show that nearly all of them prefer to use “puberty icons” to sell products rather than smaller, pre-pubescent children. Once again, an expectation is set for any fourth or fifth or sixth grader to “age-upward” rather than remaining a goofy, but innocent little kid.

The point of recognizing the two sides of earlier puberty, the physical and the social, isn’t to force us into a “nobody can control the media,” or “let’s internet-proof the house” discussion. Instead, the point is to understand how we as parents need to respond to different questions and issues our children are faced with, and how to get messages about personal responsibility across, and how to tell the difference between a digital friend and a genuine friend. Puberty itself isn’t a threat, even if it happens in a third or fourth grader. The problem has to do with kids feeling compelled to pretend that they have already reached and gone through puberty rather than remembering that there is time to be a kid.