10 Fascinating Things We Learned About Kids In 2023

We have science to thank for these findings on everything from screen time to mental health and language to behavioral development.

There’s no denying that scientific discovery and innovation have changed the face of modern parenting. We now have the technology to create human embryos in a lab, test them for genetic diseases and freeze them for use at a later date. We know more than ever about the psychological impact our parenting choices have on our children, and many of us are consciously doing things differently than our own parents did with us.

Despite all this innovation and insight, kids still don’t come with an instruction manual. There’s plenty of conflicting advice about how to raise a healthy, happy little human, and much that remains shrouded in mystery: When does nurture trump nature? How can a parent know when to step back and when to intervene? Does technology offer a solution to the current problem or the potential cause of a new one?

Parenting isn’t a science, yet the latest research from the fields of medicine, psychology, education (and others) informs the way we parent, impacting everything from when we introduce potential food allergens to when we allow our kids their own social media accounts.

Here are some of the things that science has taught us about children in 2023.

Physical activity is good for kids’ psyches as well as their bodies.

A study from Eastern Finland University found that 8th and 9th graders who walked or rode their bikes to school had higher “perceived academic performance” and enjoyed school more than their peers who used other forms of transportation.

More frequent activity had an even bigger positive impact. Students who engaged in leisure time physical activity, such as sports practices, for 4-6 hours a week were 50% less likely to experience school burnout than their less active peers. They were also almost three times as likely to report high levels of “school enjoyment.”

More screen time for babies is associated with an increased risk of developmental delays.

A study published in JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association) Paediatrics found a correlation between the amount of screen time babies got at age 1 and their chances of having a developmental delay at ages 2 and 4. Delays at ages 2 and 4 were found in both communication and problem-solving domains.

It’s important to note that the study found a correlation between screen time and developmental delays, not a causative relationship. Scientists do not know if screen time itself leads to such delays. It is possible, for example, that babies who get more screen time are getting less face-to-face time with attentive caregivers, and this could be contributing to delays in communication or other domains.

Kids who have warm, loving relationships with parents grow up to be kinder people.

Researchers at the University of Cambridge used data collected from over 10,000 people in the U.K. to examine the impact of early relationships with caregivers. The children were followed through age 17, and researchers found that children who had warm, loving relationships with their parents at age 3 grew up to have fewer mental health problems. In addition, these children and teens displayed more “prosocial” behaviours such as kindness, empathy, helpfulness, generosity and volunteering.

Screen time impacts adolescents’ brains and may put them at risk for mood disorders.

Kids who spent more time on screens at ages 9 and 10 were more likely to show symptoms of anxiety at ages 11 and 12, according to a study published in the Journal of Behavioural Addictions. Because researchers looked at brain imaging of the children, they were able to identify structural changes in the brain that correlated to these symptoms. The structural brain structure changes that scientists found shared a pattern with those associated with teen alcohol consumption, suggesting that the way screens impact adolescents’ brains is similar to addictive substances.

Some kids are simply born poor sleepers.

As millions of bleary-eyed parents know all too well, sometimes kids just will not go to sleep, no matter what you do. This study in the Journal Of Child Psychology And Psychiatry found that the genetic variations that have been linked to insomnia in adults are also correlated with insomnia in children. Genetically-predisposed kids were more likely to have trouble falling asleep or experience frequent awakenings. Parents struggling with getting their child to fall or remain asleep can take solace in the fact that genetics, rather than a lack of effort on their part, may be to blame.

Teen girls are experiencing sexual violence in record numbers.

In February, the Centres for Disease Control issued a report highlighting trends in the data collected by their Youth Risk Behaviour Survey over the past decade. While not all of these trends were negative, the report raised many troublesome findings, including that 14% of teen girls said they had been forced to have sex within the last year. This marked the first time in a decade that this number rose. For Native American and Alaska Native girls, and for those who identified as LGBQ+, the number was even higher. (Note that the survey did not provide an option for students to identify as trans.)

The report also documented an increase in the number of girls who experienced “persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness,” and the number who attempted suicide. Again, LGBQ+ youth were at higher risk.

Talking to babies influences the structure of their brains.

A study published in the Journal of Neuroscience in June found a correlation between the amount of speech babies were exposed to and their brain structure. Scientists measured the amount of language that babies were exposed to at home and used brain imaging to examine concentrations of myelin, a substance that coats the nerves and facilitates connections. They found that infants who heard their parents and other adults saying more words had higher concentrations of myelin in parts of their brain associated with language. While parents may sometimes feel a bit silly holding one-way conversations with babies, talking to children is how they eventually learn to speak, and now we know that these experiences impact the physical structure of their brains.

Children’s nap patterns are related to their cognitive function.

A group of researchers at the University of East Anglia in the U.K. used the closure of child care centres during the pandemic to study young children’s natural napping tendencies. Examining data from 463 children aged 8 months to 3 years, they found a relationship between nap patterns and a child’s cognitive function. Infants with smaller vocabularies and poorer cognitive skills tend to nap more frequently. “Our research shows that how frequently a child naps reflects their individual cognitive need. Some are more efficient at consolidating information during sleep, so they nap less frequently,” lead researcher Dr. Teodora Gliga said. Researchers advised parents to let children nap as long as they need to, noting that reducing naps for children will not improve brain development.

The child mortality rate in the U.S. is going up.

An analysis of child mortality data from 1999-2021 found that the mortality rate for ages 1-19 rose from 2019-2020 and again from 2020-2021. Dr. Steven H. Woolf of Virginia Commonwealth University, one of the authors of the analysis, told HuffPost that researchers believe the last such increase occurred in 1918 — the year of the Spanish flu pandemic.

COVID-19 resulted in an increase in mortality for adults during those same years, but the virus does not account for the uptick in children’s deaths. What does?

“Suicide, homicide, drug overdoses and car accidents,” Woolf said.

Among these numbers are glaring racial discrepancies. Boys, older children and Black children are at much higher risk of death by homicide, for example.

Access to firearms plays a critical role, with virtually all homicides and almost half of suicides in this age group involve a gun.

Babies may experience consciousness from the time they are born.

While a baby can’t tell us what they think or feel, and no one can recall what it was like to be a baby, we now have evidence of conscious thought in infants. A study published in the journal Trends In Cognitive Sciences found the same markers of consciousness previously identified in adults in the brain imaging of babies. While we may not be able to “read” a baby’s thoughts, these findings suggest that babies do have an awareness of their own existence. The study’s authors pointed out that there may be clinical, ethical and even legal implications to these findings. Parents might also experience those early, exhausting days and nights with their babies in a new light, knowing that their child is already developing their sense of self.