A new report from researchers at Georgetown University suggests informing very young adolescents about sexual and reproductive health is a strategy that has lifetime benefits.
Investigators believe emerging adolescence presents a window of opportunity between age 10 to 14 years, a time when both girls and boys are constructing their own identities and are typically open to new ideas and influences.
The “openness” provides an opportunity for parents, teachers, health care providers, and others to help them transition into healthy teenage and adulthood years.
However, researchers acknowledge that despite the opportunity, few programs are available on a worldwide platform to help children of this age navigate passage from childhood to adulthood.
An estimated 1.2 billion adolescents live in the world today, the largest number in history. Half are between the ages of 10 and 14, years of critical transition from child to teenager.
These are the years in which puberty is experienced, bringing with it physical and other changes that may be difficult for a youngster to understand, yet set the stage for future sexual and reproductive health.
Nevertheless, the opportunity to reach very young adolescents during the very years when sexual and reproductive health behaviors lasting a lifetime are being developed is frequently missed, the researchers note.
They report that educators, program designers, policymakers, or others typically do not view 10- to 14-year-olds as a priority because the long-term benefits and value of investing in them goes unrecognized.
In their study, published online in the journal Global Public Health, the Georgetown researchers advocate investing in teens’ future healthy relationships and positive sexual and reproductive health, identifying specific approaches to reach very young adolescents.
Such programs must be tailored to meet their unique developmental needs and take into account the important roles of parents and guardians and others who influence very young adolescents.
“Ten is not too young to help girls and boys understand their bodies and the changes that are occurring. Ten is not too young to begin to move them from ignorance to knowledge,” said Rebecka Lundgren, M.P.H., senior author of the paper.
“We need to reach 10- to 14-year-olds, often through their parents or schools, to teach them about their bodies and support development of a healthy body image and a strong sense of self worth. We also need to hear their voices, the voices of the under-heard and underserved. Ten is not too young.” Lundgren is the director of research at Georgetown’s Institute for Reproductive Health.
The paper notes that preventive reproductive and sexual health services designed to suit the needs of very young adolescents are virtually nonexistent in lower- and middle-income countries and that worldwide, family life education, youth centers, and youth-friendly health services with programs specifically targeted to 10 to 14 year olds rarely exist.
According to the World Health Organization and other groups, misinformation abounds about fertility (including first menstruation and ejaculation), sex, sexuality, and gender identity in this age group. Very young adolescents often rely on equally uninformed peers or older siblings and the media for information.
According to Lundgren, the few existing programs for youths at that age typically focus on girls.
“We need to expand that focus to include boys, laying a foundation for both girls and boys to learn and communicate with peers, parents, teachers, and health providers as they develop positive self images and healthy practices in order to move this age group from vulnerability to empowerment,” she said.