Early puberty isn’t just for girls anymore. A new study shows that boys have been reaching adolescence earlier as well.
People have been raising concerns about girls’ increasingly early development for years. As Jezebel points out, Kotex has even started marketing maxi pads for kids as young as 8. Because there’s a market for that.
In boys, the onset of puberty can be a little harder to spot. There’s no menarche. They don’t wake up one day with a spot of blood on their undies and join the demographic of pubescent kids. It’s more like a gradual process.
So how can you tell if that process is starting earlier? One researcher is doing it by looking at death rates.
A demographer named Joshua Goldstein looked at hundreds of years worth of data about what researchers call “the accident hump.” That’s the term for a spike in accidental deaths among boys coinciding with adolescence.
When testosterone spikes in their bodies, boys start engaging in more risk-taking behavior. So by looking at accidental death rates among youths, you can get a sense of when they’re hitting puberty. That’s the theory, anyway.
What Goldstein found was that the “accident hump” has moved about 2.5 months younger each decade since the mid-1700s. He says that being 18 today is developmentally on par with being 22 back in the 1700s.
That’s a long-term trend. I sometimes see the decreasing age of puberty in girls attributed to environmental factors like hormone disrupting chemicals in our food supply. The slow steady shift Goldstein is seeing in boys has to come from somewhere else, though, right? There were no BPA-laced baby bottles for kids to suck on in colonial days.
Goldstein believes that the causes of earlier maturity in both boys and girls are improvements in nutrition and our ability to fight diseases. He’s ruled out technology because major developments didn’t cause a shift in the data (amazingly, the introduction of guns and cars didn’t significantly increase the number of reckless teen boys having fatal accidents).
The upshot of an earlier onset of puberty is that, combined with the widespread delay of marriage, parenthood and starting a career, adolesence is getting really long. Childhood seems to be getting shorter, which is a shame because childhood is awesome. But there’s an upside. As Goldstein puts it, “Important decisions in life are being made with an increasing distance from the recklessness of youth.”
I hear the argument that we’re less likely to make bad decisions if we’re making them further away from the onset of puberty. The notion of kids physically maturing earlier and earlier still doesn’t sit well, though. Boys can’t keep hitting puberty two months earlier each decade indefinitely, right? At some point, babies would be needing a shave.