Studies have shown that girls are reaching puberty younger and younger, to the point that Kotex now has a line of maxi pads intended for 8-year-olds. There hasn't been as much discussion of when boys start puberty, perhaps because it doesn't require an awkward trip to buy new undergarments, and is thus less noticeable to adults. However, a new study says that like girls, they're maturing earlier than ever before.
Joshua Goldstein, director of the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research, studied mortality data and found that since the mid-1700s, the age of sexual maturity has been decreasing by about 2.5 months per decade. Goldstein says he can tell when boys went through puberty due to the "accident hump." When testosterone production peaks in boys, they start partaking in more risky behavior and their probability of dying shoots up. Goldstein found that this spike in the death rate of young males has shifted about two years earlier per century.
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).
Children starting puberty is usually presented as a cause for concern, but Goldstein says there are some benefits. He explains, "While adolescents become adults earlier in a biological sense, they reach adulthood later regarding their social and economic roles." The idea that there's now an extended period of adolescence was thoroughly discussed in the New York Times last year, and the gap between childhood and adulthood may be getting even wider if people are physically maturing earlier, but starting careers and families later in life. Though Goldstein may need to catch up on a few seasons of Teen Mom, he says that generally this means, "Important decisions in life are being made with an increasing distance from the recklessness of youth."
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