Do Australian Children Have More Problems Today Than Twenty Years Ago?

Do Australian Children Have More Problems Today Than Twenty Years Ago?

Media release — 30 June 2008

The rising rate of obesity, depression and substance abuse has led to growing concerns that today's Australian children are faring worse than those of twenty years ago, according to the Australian Institute of Family Studies.

However two landmark studies by the Institute examining children’s temperament and behaviour—back then and now—have come up with findings that challenge this view.

“Using results from two landmark longitudinal studies we were able to make a rare comparison of children born twenty years apart in differing eras,” said Institute director Professor Alan Hayes.

The new research released today compared behavioural issues for two- to three-year-olds and six- to seven-year-olds, then and now.

“It paints quite a different picture. Children growing up in the new millennium are doing comparatively better in some areas than those children growing up in the 1980s and we’re lucky to have this parallel information to find that out,” Professor Hayes said.

The new research found that:

  • The two- to three-year-olds of 20 years ago were less sociable, less persistent and more reactive than those of today (although the differences between the two groups of children were not huge).
  • Significantly more toddlers of 20 years ago had difficulty falling asleep and showed signs of aggression and destructiveness.
  • The comparison of six- to seven-year-olds found that children 20 years ago were significantly more often perceived to have conduct problems and anxiety than today’s study children.
  • The highest rates of behaviour problems for today’s six- and seven-year-olds are restlessness, worrying, the tendency to lose their temper, fidgeting and disobedience.

However, the study threw up an interesting divide between what parents think of their children and what teachers think, according to the paper’s lead researcher, Diana Smart.

Most of today’s parents think their children are progressing well. Teachers, on the other hand, tended to report more instances of hyperactivity and conduct problems among their charges.

“Perhaps today’s parents are more tolerant and understanding of, or less affected by challenging child behaviour and therefore less likely to report it as problematic,” Ms Smart said.

“The other side of the coin is that today’s teachers may be more aware of conduct issues than they were in the past and more willing to report their presence,” Ms Smart said.

Another dimension to the issue, according to Ms Smart, is anecdotal evidence gleaned from experienced teachers suggesting that today’s children tend to behave more poorly at school than children of the eighties.

“If schools have become less tightly regulated over the last 20 years, higher rates of conduct and hyperactive behaviour problems could be becoming more apparent,” Ms Smart said.

The research found that 20 years ago parent reports of problems were much higher than teacher reports; but now the trend has swung the other way.

“The evidence from the earlier study that began in the eighties, the Australian Temperament Project, is that the minority of children who have emotional or behavioural difficulties in early childhood are at risk of a range of problems later, like depression, substance abuse and anti-social behaviour. However, risk is not destiny and there are ways to build kids’ resilience,” Ms Smart said.

Family Matters, no. 79, 2008 - table of contents and abstracts

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