Social scientists are expressing alarm that parents could be downplaying concerns about boys in a society that increasingly values gender equality, according to a new national study.
The sixth annual American Family Survey, a nationwide study of 3,000 Americans, was conducted by YouGov for the Deseret News and the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University.
Researchers questioned parents separately about concerns about boys only, girls only, and boys and girls together. When asked about boys and girls together, 36% of parents reported concerns about boys and 35% about girls. But when asked about boys only, 45% noted concerns, compared with 30% for the girls-only question.
This disparity, researchers say, suggests a social contract that allows parents to express fears about girls, but less so about boys.
“There is, probably, more concern about boys and young men in our current society but it can be masked by norms of gender equality,” the study states.
It’s not as if U.S. parents express a relative peace-of-mind about raising girls.
The American Family Survey found that 56% of parents of girls report concerns about their emotional health, compared with 49% of boys. And 61% of parents of girls have anxieties about their child’s educational welfare, compared with 58% of boys.
The findings follow a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study last month that reported nearly 20% of teenage girls — compared with 13% of boys — experienced mental, behavioral or developmental disorders.
In general, childhood depression has been trending upward. A 2017 report from the Pew Research Center found that 12.8% of children reported major depressive episodes, up from 7.9% a decade earlier.
Researchers say the high percentage of parents of boys say they harbor fears about their sons developing into successful adults, when asked independently of girls, suggests that parents could be downplaying their concerns when asked about children in general in order to practice gender equality.
Mary Karapetian Alvord, a psychologist in Chevy Chase, Maryland, and author of “Conquer Negative Thinking for Teens,” said that concerns about boyhood depression are amplified, given the higher rates of suicide for adolescent boys.
“Boys are more likely to die by suicide and that is alarming, and we’ve got to do something about that,” said Ms. Alvord, who was not involved in the American Family Survey.
According to the American Society of Suicidology, nearly 80% of suicide victims are male.
“As a psychologist, I really worry about making sure we continue to pay attention to boys, not just to oppositional behavior or not doing what they’re supposed to do,” Ms. Alvord said.
“[T]hough people tend to adhere to a norm of gender neutrality or equality, we do find experimental evidence that there is a latent amount of greater concern over boys than girls,” states the American Family Survey, which was conducted during July.