The life of a nine-year-old Irish child: fewer hobbies, reads less, owns a mobile phone

New ESRI report shows gender and socio-economic background strongly influence participation, with poorer children significantly disadvantaged

Nine-year-old children take part in out-of-school pastimes such as sport and culture less often than they did a decade ago, new research has found.

The Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) on Monday published a report which examined the lives of nine-year-olds, and how that has changed over the past 10 years in terms of their relationships with family and friends, pastimes and school experiences.

It found a decline in the number of children taking part in sports, dropping from 44 per cent to 34 per cent playing sport almost every day. A decrease was also noticed in participation in cultural activities, such as music or dance lessons, from 47 per cent to 44 per cent.

A significant increase was found in the proportion of nine-year-olds who have their own mobile phone, from 44 per cent to 54 per cent.


“Owning a mobile phone is associated with less time reading and lower levels of involvement in cultural activities,” the report said.

The research drew on data from the Growing up in Ireland study, comparing nine-year-olds in 2007 and 2008 to those at that age in 2017 and 2018. It also identified a shift in the profile of children and their families during this time.

Parents are more likely to have degrees, families are more linguistically and culturally diverse, and more children are reported to have illnesses or disabilities, with the proportion increasing from 11 per cent to 24 per cent.

Both gender and socio-economic factors strongly influence the social worlds and lives of children, the research found.

Girls have closer and less conflictual relations with their parents than boys but have smaller friendship groups and see their friends less often. They are more likely to read for pleasure and engage in cultural activities but less likely to take part in sports. They also spend less time on digital devices than boys.

Girls are more positive about school overall but less positive about maths, and gender differences in attitudes to maths widen over time.

The study finds that where families are under financial strain, parent-child conflict is more common and children tend to have smaller friendship groups. Children from more advantaged families are more likely to be involved in sports. The impact of social background on reading for pleasure becomes more pronounced over time, with a decline in daily reading for all children except those with graduate parents.

Prof Emer Smyth, author of the report, said there are “concerning trends” in children’s involvement in sports, cultural pursuits and reading.

“Subsidised provision of sports and cultural activities for more disadvantaged groups could help encourage participation,” Prof Smyth said. “Continued efforts on the part of schools and libraries will be crucial in trying to reverse the decline in reading for pleasure found among many groups of children.”

Minister for Children Roderic O’Gorman described the research as important.

“The report’s finding that the gender and social background differences in children’s activities emerge early and tend to persist suggests the importance of early learning and care in providing access to a variety of engaging activities for girls and boys across all social groups,” he said.

Shauna Bowers

Shauna Bowers

Shauna Bowers is a reporter for The Irish Times