What about Early Puberty in Boys?

Cristen Conger

Are boys hitting puberty sooner, too? (Getty Images/Digital Vision)

As we fret over precocious puberty turning little girls into little women, why haven't more people stopped to ask what's going on with the boys? For all of the conversation about how precocious puberty might wreak havoc on girls in terms of lowered self-confidence and earlier sexual activity, I've only heard one person (via Delia Lloyd at Politics Daily) wonder aloud how this endocrine shift might impact males.

After all, baby boys are drinking out of bisphenol A-containing plastic bottles alongside their female counterparts and suffering from the same childhood obesity epidemic -- both of which are implicated as possible culprits behind precocious puberty. Just as autism is thought to be underdiagnosed in girls, could there be a gender divide when it comes to precocious puberty as well? Certain autistic symptoms are more immediately apparent in boys and therefore elicit more frequent diagnoses, and perhaps a similar gendered pattern has emerged with precocious puberty since breast development may be easier for parents to spot than, say, testicular enlargement.

The University of Iowa estimates that only around 1 in 10,000 boys hits puberty sooner than the average nine years old. Yet, a March 2010 study from George Washington University notes that boys may very well be starting puberty earlier, too. From the research:

...A study from Denmark found that the mean age of testicular enlargement in boys declined from age 11.92 years to 11.66 years between 1991-1993 and 2006-2008, suggesting that more boys may be starting puberty before age 9 years.

Puberty typically strikes boys a little later than girls anyway. According to Harvard Medical School, initial breast development -- which the researchers from the highly publicized precocious puberty study use as their benchmark -- occurs in girls around age 11. On the other hand, testicular growth in boys happens almost a year later.

The GWU paper also highlights that reliable incidence rates of precocious puberty in males don't exist. And interestingly, one study of children in a hospital found the condition occurred in girls five times more often. However, a majority of those cases were idiopathic, or had no apparent cause, implying that some of those girls may have merely been on the earlier cusp of normal puberty development.

Now, if precocious puberty were affecting boys at the same rate, I wonder if our social concern would be as frantic. Just like the public hand-wringing over the HPV vaccine and improved access to contraceptives and birth control, a lot of anxiety about precocious puberty deals with whether it will "sexualize" a generation of girls too early. Granted, there are legitimate health concerns, such as a link to obesity and certain types of cancers. Yet time and again, the conversation revolves around that early breast development and the negative attention it might attract, rather than sticking with the biological and environmental roots of the problem.

It seems like if we paid more attention to why precocious puberty is popping up in the first place, boys might've entered the conversation already. So could that distress about these prematurely "sexualized" young girls overshadow the same health trend occurring among young boys? Or are boys being overlooked because their precocious puberty is simply harder to spot?

These are important questions to answer since early puberty comes with a unique set of baggage for boys. The physical impact of precocious puberty means earlier testicular and penile development along with stunted growth in the long run. And behaviorally, jumpstarted male puberty could present especially perplexing problems. From the University of Iowa:

Some boys become more aggressive than their peers and develop a sex drive...Boys often have a hard time paying attention in school and getting along with other children their age. They may feel more comfortable around older children, but are not mature enough emotionally to be accepted by them.

So while precocious puberty triggers body image insecurities for both genders, girls tend to withdraw into depression, while boys lash out. Either way, it's time to shift the discussion from behavior to biology. Six-year-old girls sprouting breasts are certainly legitimate cause for public health concern. We shouldn't ignore the fact that boys don't seem as affected by whatever biological and environmental triggers are responsible for these endocrine ripple effects, either. By addressing precocious puberty as it impacts both genders we'll find more concrete answers instead of focusing on fearmongering what-if scenarios.

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