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For girls on bikes, new research shows a turning point: age 14

Posted by on May 27th, 2013 at 1:28 pm

Lots of girls love bikes. But
for many, things change in their teens.
Image © J. Maus/BikePortland

Statistically speaking, girls and boys tend to have similar attitudes toward bikes until their 14th birthday or so. But around that age, gender attitudes diverge dramatically – and no one’s quite sure why.

As they enter puberty, Portland girls suddenly start reporting much more concern about not knowing “how to exercise the right way,” according to a new study. That’s also the age at which girls start worrying more than boys do about hurting themselves if they’re physically active.

Portland State University researcher Tara Goddard, who presented those findings to colleagues Friday, wonders if girls and boys should get different sorts of encouragement as they build active teen lifestyles.

“Maybe we need to catch them before this split starts to happen,” Goddard said Friday. “Otherwise you’re kind of working backwards and trying to repair that split.”

Boys who turn 14 may still worry about the same issues, Goddard’s research shows, but it tends to be at the same rates they did when they were younger.

Another big divide between girls and boys relates to their attitudes toward their peers. Whether or not boys ride bikes themselves, they feel about the same way about whether other kids their age ride bikes for transportation and whether biking to school is “cool.”

But girls who like bikes are much more likely than girls who don’t like bikes to say their peers think highly of bicycles.

“By age 14, girls are embarrassed to be seen exercising,” Goddard said – and girls who feel that embarrassment more are much less likely to ride bicycles. “Do girls think of bicycling as a non-trivial physical activity?” Goddard wondered. “Or you could look at it the other direction: do girls who like bicycling have this body confidence and they’re more comfortable being seen exercising?”

PSU’s Tara Goddard presents her findings Friday.
Image © M. Andersen/BikePortland

Goddard has looked into different programs designed to attract teens to biking. She found that public health programs tend to be more about discouraging unhealthy behavior – stopping smoking, for example – than encouraging healthy behavior.

She also said it’s hard to find programs targeted directly toward helping girls build social connections with peers who ride bikes.

“A lot of girls are more likely to report the influence of their peers, so can we take advantage of that to be able to leverage the influence of bicycling as a transportation mode?” Goddard asked.

Bike-fun groups like Portland’s Sprockettes, who recently started operating a summer bike-dance camp for girls, do come to mind. I also thought about this amazing video from a group of young Minneapolis rappers, both boys and girls, about their love of bikes.

This gender split among tweens is one tantalizing drip from a geyser of new data about to emerge from a three-year, $400,000 study of 323 Portland households’ travel behavior. The study was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, OTREC and the City of Portland, and it promises a huge amount of new data on how families who live in different neighborhoods navigate our moderately multimodal American city.

“This is just the very first cut – the exploratory stuff,” Goddard said. “During the next six months to a year to 18 months, there’s going to be a lot of cool stuff coming out on this project.”

NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. BikePortland is an inclusive company with no tolerance for discrimination or harassment including expressions of racism, sexism, homophobia, or xenophobia. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Also, if you comment frequently, please consider holding your thoughts so that others can step forward. Thank you — Jonathan

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Jim Lee
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Jim Lee

Fourteen is about the age girls understand that for them there are more important things.

longgone
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longgone

As I am sure many of you know, the invention of the bicycle was a tool for woman to empower themselves in ways that many did not see coming at the time.
While being involved with couple of bicycle touring/riding clubs in the 70-80’s, just keeping kids interested in cycling at this “breaking age point” no matter which gender, can be difficult.
We are lucky to live in a place such as P-town where the continuity of passing through this period of bike as fun, into bike as lifestyle, can be seen as seamless and natural.
This article seems to say (to me at least) that the typical gender issues we have known and struggled with for eons, can still influence a young persons outlook very easily.
I believe that younger people are embracing the bicycle again, at least it seems they are for many reasons.
I hope millions of girls see the beauty in it.

I hate riding with guys all the time, that gets boring.

IanC
Guest
IanC

As a local soccer coach for this age group, I’ll just add that there is a lot of attrition from the soccer teams at this age as well. Our club went from 3 full teams of 11-year-olds to barely fielding one team of 13-year-olds.

Still, team sports provide built-in support and encouragement for athleticism. Maybe some road/cross/MTB teams for this age group?

jim
Guest
jim

At 14 you want to be anywhere but home. You are too young to drive so you ride a bike. Boys seem to be in skateboard mode these days more so than girls

Alex
Guest

FYI –

For anyone interested in the study size…
The seminar description says that 490 aged 4-17 years were in the study.

_If_ the children’s ages were evenly distributed that would put about (3 years)/(14 years) * 490 = 105 children in the 12-14 year bracket and 35 children in each year bracket.

_If_ the genders were evenly split, this would 35/2 =17.5 -> about 18 children in each age/gender bracket.

So what I’m trying to say is that the results are interesting and worth studying more, but the sample sizes aren’t huge and a larger study might show different results.

Patrick
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Patrick

My 14 year old daughter and I were involved in this study and just like the graphs show, she stopped riding around 13. She pesters me about driving her places and prefers riding the bus. It’s frustrating since I like to bike everywhere and she was raised on trailers, tag-alongs & bikes.

Art Fuldodger
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Art Fuldodger

Interesting. My daughter started to develop a somewhat negative view of riding around age 13+, that continued until about age 17 when she started looking around the world a bit and realized that the people she thought were cool & looked up to in their late teens/early 20’s were all riding bikes everywhere. She’s now in her mid-20’s and the bike is her vehicle of choice.

Watching bike use at high schools go from virtually zero in the early 2000’s to an accepted form of transportation now (just look at the overflowing bike racks at Cleveland, Grant, etc.) – still plenty of room for growth, but it’s clearly not a marginalized activity among (most) high schoolers anymore. That’s a good sign, & to my mind one we can thank the generally helmetless, lightless, fixie-riding young hipsters for. Yeah, not my perfectly ideal choice for a role model for my daughter, but a whole lot better than many of the other possibilities.

Chris Shaffer
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Chris Shaffer

I guess I’m very fortunate. My daughter was riding her bike occasionally and riding the bus to school every day in middle school. When she started high school at age 13, she voluntarily (just sort of out of the blue) started riding her bike to school every day, rain, or shine.

Mabsf
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Mabsf

I have been a walk & Bike coordinator for 5 years and got my son’s class through elementary school with some girls riding… going to be interesting to see that they do in middle school and if the crazy bike lady achieved something!

ladyfleur
Guest

Having worked extensively with middle and high school girls through Girl Scouts, girls 13-14 are developmentally unique. Almost overnight they become very concerned about their image and can become narcissistically obsessed about clothes, hair, re-decorating their bedroom, etc.

Unlike riding in a car, when you ride a bike you are very conspicuous in public which can intensify any image concerns girls have. So if riding a bike is considered dorky, forget it. Especially where helmets are involved.

So to me it’s less about being girls not wanting be seen exercising and more about whether bikes are cool or dorky. Bicycling to school or around town is no more “exercising” than walking. It could be that it’s less cool.

lbprguy
Guest
lbprguy

Hmmm … so you’re saying that girls stop riding bikes right around the age they start dating boys who have cars? Or was that not one of the survey questions?

dmc
Guest
dmc

At the school I went to, It would have only taken a couple of the “popular girls” or “popular guys” to dramatically shift the opinion of cycling.

I think a lot of tweens outside of the Portland area see cycling as “a kid with a bmx bike” or “a 40 something with a road bike in lycra” and not the possibility of the cool tennis squad leader riding to school in a stylish dress and boots.

annefi
Guest
annefi

Why are so many girls in the photo on bikes with the seat set too low?

Pat Franz
Guest

It would be interesting to see how this compares across countries with different levels of cycling. Jonathan- another thing to look out for!

Kat
Guest
Kat

I loved riding my bike, still do, but as I recall 14 was about the age that boys (and some men) started screaming “show us your t*ts!!!” at me as I rode by. All of a sudden I felt very on display and exposed.

It still happens, but now I’m a cranky middle-aged woman who just yells back at them.

KJ
Guest
KJ

There is a lot of cultural things at play here for sure. From my own history, i biked and walked to school until till middle school ( where we moved someplace I had to bus to get to the school) and then we moved again and I lived in Davis walking distance from my new MS. Everyone biked to HS. The parking lot was small. No one thought 2 ways if you drove or biked. You wanted to drive because heck you just got your licence! But you biked if not. My girl friends and I all biked to hang out/ meet up when we couldn’t get a car.I cared as much as any tween/teen about being cool/appearances/ etc. I don’t know if that has changed since the early 90’s in Davis, it probably has. But if the culture is to bike, I wonder if it’s less of a drop off.

Mari Lynch - Bicycling Monterey
Guest

Some Monterey County teen girls told me there are four main reasons they personally don’t bike much: (1) helmets are required for under 18 by California law, and many girls don’t like the appearance of helmets and/or don’t own one; (2) concern about theft of bikes and bike parts, even at some schools; (3) they are excited about being able to drive now, so give up two wheels for four; (4)their parents don’t think it’s safe for them to bike. (All of these topics are further addressed on the Bicycling Monterey website.) Some of these girls still ride and most often do so with their dads, who love to bike.

The above four reasons are also relevant for many teen boys who stop biking, or bike less often.

Social bike runs in Salinas and elsewhere around Monterey County do draw some teen girls, although boys turn out in higher numbers.

Maria Choban
Guest

I think it has to do with menstruation. the shame of possibly leaking makes any form of exercise (which exacerbates the blood flow) taboo. At 14 the shame is overwhelming.

Mike Carrier
Guest

If we can invent a way to safe way to blend their favorite thing to do (TEXTING) while bicycling, we may find a greater appreciation from today’s youth. Will someone please get to work work on that.