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19 October 2006
Early Adolescence Creating Public Health Conundrum
by George Atkinson

Public health experts from Liverpool John Moores University are concerned that while puberty seems to be occurring at an increasingly earlier age, society's support structures for new adolescents are lagging far behind. Writing in The Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, the researchers note that the onset of puberty has been steadily falling for the past 150 years, and astonishingly, has dropped three years within the past century alone.

They cite better health and improved nutrition as two of the reasons behind the trend, but note that stress is also pushing down the age when puberty begins. Stress, such as that brought on by parental separation and absentee fathers, can fast-track puberty, say the researchers. And with rates of divorce and single parenthood rapidly increasing in many countries, stress levels in children are sure to rise, they add.

Of most concern, however, is the failure of politicians, teachers - and often parents - to recognize and acknowledge these physical and emotional changes occurring in children at increasingly earlier ages. Despite the younger age at which children reach puberty, there have been no attempts to mentally develop young people faster, "leaving an increasing gap between physical puberty [physical changes] and social puberty [mature behaviors]," the researchers contend. "The results can be ill informed health damaging behavior," they add, "including unprotected sex, substance abuse, self harm, violence and bullying, with disadvantaged communities likely to be hit the hardest."

Perhaps more worryingly, while most of society might prefer to ignore the earlier onset of puberty, the commercial sector has picked up on it with gusto, drawing heavily on sexual imagery in their marketing to young teens, referred to demographically as "tweens".

"Such marketing is more likely to reinforce the confusion caused by separated physical and social puberty rather than providing the information necessary to deal with it," say the researchers. "In the short term, responding to earlier puberty means moving away from societal attitudes that equate protecting children with regarding them as firmly ensconced in childhood long after their physical journey into adulthood has begun. Such pretence, however well intentioned, simply denies them the vital information they require to complete this transition without damaging their health."

Based on material from the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health

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