Research Brief: The Confidence Cliff

Dr. B talks about the abrupt decline in confidence at age 10 and its ties to social media—and explores the findings from our national survey on confidence.

In a previous newsletter, I described how confidence among children has been decreasing steadily since 2012, with an even sharper decline since 2018. The takeaway is that confidence is lower for this generation of children than any in recent history.

Now it’s time to talk about how confidence changes as kids get older.

Research studies have come to a consensus about the trajectory of confidence throughout childhood and into adolescence. Generally, kids are pretty confident until age 7 or 8, at which point there’s a decline in confidence as they begin to more accurately judge their own abilities, take feedback from parents and teachers to heart, and compare themselves to their friends. Then, around ages 10 to 12, confidence goes over a cliff for a lot of kids. Research looking at self-esteem, self-efficacy, or confidence in general have all shown evidence of a steep drop, particularly among girls, around the time kids transition into middle school.

We wanted to know more about this confidence cliff, so we replicated and extended previous research to validate precisely how confidence changes throughout childhood. To do so, we conducted our own national survey using research-validated measures of confidence, and included confidence-related questions used in the Monitoring the Future (MTF) study which has been tracking trends in youth attitudes and behaviors for decades.

The MTF data begins at age 14, so we surveyed over 1,250 children ages 7-12 and asked them whether they agreed with three confidence-related statements from MTF (I take a positive attitude toward myself, I feel I am a person of worth, I am able to do things as well as others). As expected, a steady downward trend in confidence was evident among our nationally representative sample of children (see graph below): at age 7, 77% of children agreed with all three confidence statements, but by age 12 that had dropped to 60% of children. In comparison, nationally representative MTF data indicated that only 38% of 14-year-olds agreed with all three of those confidence statements.

Although these data come from different samples of children, both were nationally representative, the questions were worded consistently, and the sample sizes were sufficiently large enough to provide reliable estimates.

That means if we define confidence as liking yourself, knowing that you have value, and feeling that you are as capable as others, then this is initial evidence that half of the kids who are confident at age 7 lose confidence in at least one of those areas by age 14.

The bottom line is that if there are children in your life younger than age 7 or 8, they’re probably pretty confident! Then, as they get older many kids will start to have confidence-related problems, and by late childhood and early adolescence a majority of children will start to struggle in one way or another. Why? The transition to middle school, cognitive capabilities that enable more realistic self-evaluations, and social comparison are some of the ingredients that can make this time of life tough on kids.

Additionally, a leading theory for why the current generation of children in particular is suffering from higher rates of anxiety and depression (and lower confidence) is that social media is to blame. We asked parents of the kids we surveyed whether they thought it was important to build confidence in their children before they were exposed to social media, and the response was overwhelmingly in the affirmative:

Teaching confidence skills to children, particularly ages 7 to 12, will prepare them for the inevitable challenges they’ll face as they grow up. Experts note that intervention work during early adolescence, when children have formed beliefs about themselves, may be more difficult than earlier in childhood – so now that we know precisely when confidence begins to decline for many kids, we can target developmentally appropriate prevention work for that specific age group before they get to the confidence cliff of early adolescence. On top of everything today’s youth already deal with, this generation in particular faces unique difficulties presented by social media use, so let’s be sure to equip our kids with the knowledge, skills, and beliefs they need to withstand whatever comes their way.

Dr. Brian Burkhard

Director of Research Evaluation, Legends Lab

About Me

Join the conversation

or to participate.