What do we know about Growing Up in Scotland?

Growing Up in Scotland (GUS) is a longitudinal research study founded in 2005, and commissioned by the Scottish Government.
  • Author:
    Erin Deakin
  • Publishing date:
    11 March 2024

Growing Up in Scotland (GUS) is a longitudinal research study founded in 2005, and commissioned by the Scottish Government. It has tracked the lives and experiences of thousands of children and their families from infancy, through childhood, into the teenage years and now adulthood. 

Data has been collected from around 14,000 children from three separate nationally representative cohorts. It is used to support policy making while also serving as a resource for practitioners, academics and the voluntary sector. The study is multidisciplinary, covering a wide range of policy areas. Over the years, data has provided invaluable insights into the lives and experiences of young people in Scotland. 

What has the data found? 

GUS data from children’s early years helped expose health inequalities among mothers and infants. For example, 17% of mothers in the most deprived SIMD quintile areas stated that their health was not good during pregnancy, compared with 9% in the 20% least deprived areas. Children from more deprived areas were more likely than those in less deprived areas to have a low birth weight and also more likely to have been in a Special Care Baby Unit (SCBU) or Neonatal Unit (NNU). This emphasised the need for action addressing health inequalities in the wider family, not just children.

We found that 3-year-olds in 2013 had slightly better vocabulary than 3-year-olds in 2007/2008, though there were still large differences based on deprivation levels. Data suggests that home learning activities had a positive impact on children’s vocabulary ability, but that parents from disadvantaged backgrounds were least likely to engage with learning tools and programmes, such as Bookbug or PlayTalkRead, to improve reading ability. This evidence contributed to the Scottish Government’s decision to continue funding some of these services.  

GUS data has been used to look at how children cope when transitioning into school. Around the time the cohort child started primary school, 90% of parents reported that their child never found their school-work hard (49%) or only found some parts of their school-work hard (41%).  Only 1% of parents reported their child usually found their school-work hard and the rest said they sometimes found it hard. However, there were some gender differences within this with boys being less likely to report never finding schoolwork hard than girls (46% for boys, 52% for girls).  

When cohort members were aged 10, some were asked to wear a GPS device as part of a connected research study called SPACES (Studying Physical Activity in Children’s Environment across Scotland) being run by a team at the MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit at the University of Glasgow. Amongst the many findings from this project was one which showed that children from deprived areas are almost five times more likely than children living in the least deprived areas to be exposed to alcohol outlets, and that these outlets are much more likely to be within 500m of their home. Such data can help inform local decisions on where outlets should be located.

In a project conducted as part of the UNICEF Data for Children’s Collaborative, researchers used GUS data to explore childhood obesity and its risk factors, They found that 18% of children aged 12 were obese, and that there are risk factors predicting this from ages 5-6. These include being a boy, having a mother who was overweight, exposure to smoking at home, having less money, being overweight, and experiencing negative life events. These factors can be used to target support for children at risk of obesity.  

The extent to which children engage in risky online behaviour has also been investigated. This includes behaviours such as adding someone to your friends list who you have never met face-to-face, sending a photo of yourself or any other personal information to someone you have never met face-to-face, and lying to your parents about what you do online, amongst others. At age 12, most children (60%) had not engaged in any risky behaviours. The most common behaviour reported was adding someone they had never met face-to-face to their friends list (33%). This data allowed us to produce individual factors which predict children’s likelihood of taking part in risky online behaviours.  

Child mental health has been a longstanding focus of the study’s data collection. Some of the most recent findings, from age 14, suggest almost half of children (47%) had ever experienced several days or longer of feeling depressed most of the time. Furthermore, 14% had experienced emotional or mental health difficulties severe enough that they either received a diagnosis or sought professional help.  

At age 14, respondents were also asked about their aspirations, i.e. what they saw themselves doing after their fourth year of high school. We found that 80% of young people wanted to continue education, with 48% hoping to attend university when they leave school and 15% aiming for college. Girls were more likely than boys to want to stay on at school or college full time (86% compared with 73%), as were those from more affluent areas (85% SIMD quintile 5 compared to 76% SIMD quintile 1).  

As the most recent sweep of data collection – where the cohort members were aged 17-18 – has recently come to an end and respondents begin to move out of school and into higher and further education and the workplace, GUS will continue to inform us of the needs and experiences of young people in Scotland. This will provide crucial understanding of what life looks like for young people post-pandemic and beyond. 

Growing Up in Scotland is commissioned by the Scottish Government and conducted by the Scottish Centre for Social Research. For almost 20 years Growing Up in Scotland has collected data on family circumstances, child and parent physical and mental health, education, social networks, parenting and support, use of services, local neighbourhood and offending and risky behaviour. 

If you are interested in using this data for your own research, find out more here 

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