Football is a notoriously dangerous game—it's no secret that professional players routinely expose themselves to serious injuries, and plenty of parents discourage their teens from entering the game for this reason.
But if a recent study is any indication, those dangers may extend further than we imagined...and they might start earlier than we could have predicted. New research from Translational Psychiatry reveals a scary finding: According to researchers from Boston University's Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center, playing tackle football before age 12 may increase a child's risk of developing behavioral disorders or depression.
The researchers observed 214 former football players to reach this finding. The study's subjects had not played any other contact sports, and the sample comprised a mix of high school, college, and professional players. This represents the follow-up to a 2015 study that only observed professional players.
Here's what the team found: Athletes who began playing football before age 12 appeared to have weakened memories and less mental flexibility compared to those who began playing later in life. Starting the game before age 12 was associated with double the risk of behavioral problems and triple the risk of suffering depression. These issues stem from repetitive impact to the players' heads, according to researchers.
The team behind this finding points out that brain development is crucial between ages nine and 12, which is why outcomes are so different for those who began playing before age 12.
The researchers have not made a firm recommendation that no one under 12 should play football—that's still up to your discretion as a parent—especially since this study (like almost any study) has its limitations. It only studied a relatively small sample, for one, and researchers can't quite isolate the factors behind these rates. But the researchers do feel strongly about the dangers associated with the sport, especially for players who start young. They're not the only ones: Both a concussion expert and a neurosurgeon have made recommendations against allowing kids to play tackle football as well.
We'll hold out for more research on this topic, and based on how that goes, we may even see a shift in policies surrounding the sport in the future. For now, it's just a matter of weighing your options—and whether you let your kids play the sport before age 12 (or ever) in light of this is up to you.