Groundbreaking study finds rigid gender stereotypes in children tied to higher depression, violence, suicide risk

A girl plays with a baby doll at a day care center for children aged 12 months to six years on December 22, 2011 in Munich, Germany.

Credit: Alexandra Beier

Credit: Alexandra Beier

A girl plays with a baby doll at a day care center for children aged 12 months to six years on December 22, 2011 in Munich, Germany.

New research from the World Health Organization and Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health shows exposure to rigid gender norms can be established in children by age 10 or 11, norms that can lead to damaging consequences in adolescence and beyond.

The  Global Early Adolescent Study, published Wednesday in the Journal of Adolescent Health, includes nearly four years of data from interviews with children and their parents or guardians in Bolivia, Belgium, Burkina Faso, China, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ecuador, Egypt, India, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria, Scotland, South Africa, the United States and Vietnam.

Researchers asked children questions such as, “Do you remember a situation where you realized you were no longer a child?” and “Can you tell me a story about when you did/talked about something with your friends today that you did not when you were a small child?”

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And parents were asked similar questions: “Can you tell me a story when you knew your child had become an adolescent?”

After conducting the interviews, researchers found that gender roles are generally first introduced to children in the home and are further reinforced as they grow up by siblings, classmates, coaches, clergy and others.

And no matter where children grow up, gender stereotypes prevail and have significant implications for both girls and boys, according to researchers.

The impact on girls

"The myth that girls are weak and boys are strong, that girls are vulnerable and boys are aggressive, was so globally pervasive we saw it play out over and over again in 15 countries and across five continents," Robert Blum, the study's lead researcher, told Market Watch.

Additionally, he told Huffington Post, girls are often told that their bodies are a target and if they don't "cover up and stay away from boys," the "sanctions they experience are pretty profound."

“Girls pay a very high price,” Blum said.

Such gender-based restrictions on girls leave them at a greater risk of dropping out of school, pregnancy, child marriage and exposure to violence, depression, HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.

In fact, compared to boys, girls are twice as likely to experience depression by the age of 16, according to the National Institutes of Health.

And while males are four times more likely to die from suicide than females, teen girls are more likely than teen boys to attempt suicide, according to the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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Since 2007, however, the suicide rates for both teen boys and girls are climbing.

The impact on boys

For boys, the hegemonic myth of being strong and independent generally puts them at a higher risk of falling victim to physical violence, according to researchers.

In countries such as China, India and the U.S., it has become increasingly acceptable for girls to challenge gender stereotypes, but boys can still deal with physical bullying for defying gender norms.

Researchers also found that not only do boys die more frequently than girls from unintentional injuries, and not only are they more prone to substance abuse and suicide, but as adults, their life expectancies are also shorter compared to women.

“Such differences are socially not biologically determined,” study authors concluded.

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As young people grow up, they learn to view the world through their own gender-based understandings.

To combat this prcoess, the researchers call for the “fostering [of] gender equitable approaches that have the potential to improve the well-being of adolescent boys and adolescent girls in the short and long terms.”

One way, according to Blum, is to start adolescent mental and sexual health programs at a younger age.

Read more about the "It Begins at Ten: How Gender Expectations Shape Early Adolescence Around the World" study and its methodology at