Mounting evidence now suggests that girls are entering into puberty at even earlier ages that previously thought. Specifically, newly emerging research indicates that increasing percentages of girls in the U.S. are exhibiting premature development — most notably, the growth of breasts — as early as 7 or 8 years of age. Considering that these girls are still in the early years of grade school, this is a profound trend. Additionally, some female infants in china are beginning to exhibit the same symptoms of premature development. In China, there is some speculation as to whether tainted milk and baby formula is a possible cause of these infant cases. Research has yet to determine with any certainty whether that or other causes are to blame. More broadly, researchers posit that a combination of exposure to certain chemicals and inappropriate diet/nutrition could be underlying these trends. The reality that girls may be entering puberty at earlier ages not only leads to an important discussion of the causes, but also the long-term repercussions:
1) Health: The earlier that girls experience puberty, the greater their risk for various diseases, ailments and reproductive issues later in life. For example, we may eventually see increased incidence of certain types of cancer among women as a result of this.
2) Reproduction: The implications here are two-fold. First, as girls are able to have children at earlier ages, there will undoubtedly be an uptick in risky behavior — specifically, unwanted teenage and pre-teen pregnancies. Secondly, women who experience earlier puberty will have diminished reproductive capacities at earlier ages than ever before. This may cause many women to reconsider putting off children until later life, in favor of career and income development — as has been the macro trend across much of the developed world.
3) Education: As more girls enter puberty earlier, the developmental divide between girls and boys (who already tend to develop later) could increase. As a result, educators around the world dealing with this issue will have to adopt strategies for educating many children of the same “age” in the same classes who will be at staggered, advanced or inappropriate developmental levels.
4) Family & Parenting: Will parents be cognitively flexible to the reality that their child may be entering puberty at what would historically be considered an “incorrect” or “inappropriate” time? How will parents adjust their strategies in raising these children, and will intra-familial conflict — so often the trademark of parent/teenager interactions — become a growing concern among girls as young as 7 or 8 and their parents?
5) Gender Dynamics: What will the long-term implications be for this as it relates to gender interaction? Will girls who enter puberty be ostracized and/or have a “leg up” on their female peers? Alternatively, will some sort of divide broaden between the performance and maturity of girls and boys? (note that several issues are already leading to many boys falling behind socially and in educational systems around the world)
Inevitably, if this trend increases, it will undoubtedly lead to an explosion of new product and service opportunities as global marketers look to capitalize on a never-before seen demographic niche — and their parents. Not only will education and advocacy programs be important, but entirely new health, beauty, pharma and reproductive product markets will emerge.