You’ve probably experienced gender stereotyping at some point in your life. Maybe a parent excused your behavior with a “boys will be boys” or a teacher told you that “you should smile more.” But what you might not know is how powerful these seemingly harmless phrases can be. 

We internalize these gender-specific roles. They’re cultivated at a young age by everything we hear from family, friends, teachers and clergy, what we see in the media, what we read, watch and learn. And by age 16, these roles are firmly rooted for the rest of our lives.

And once we’ve divided ourselves into different gender universes, it can be exceedingly difficult to get out. These universes give us social status, make us feel comfortable—like we have a place where we belong. 

But, according to researchers at the Johns Hopkins Global Early Adolescent Study (GEAS), gender stereotyping can actually harm our health for the rest of our lives. And early interventions that steer young people away from common stereotypes and toward a more balanced view of gender roles are essential for happier, healthier people around the world.

Those are the key findings from a set of studies published by GEAS in the Journal of Adolescent Health. The research, which represents the largest multi-site study on gender equality among young adolescents, seeks to understand the roots of gender stereotypes among different cultures. It was based on in-depth surveys conducted with more than 10,000 boys and girls, aged 10-14, living in low-income, urban communities in countries around the world—from Indonesia to Belgium to the Democratic Republic of Congo.

According to GEAS, the segregation of boys and girls into gender-specific social worlds, and the differing expectations that go along with them, can result in significant health consequences—including violence, victimization and depression. 

Boys socialized to conform to traditional masculine ideology may demonstrate it through violence—violence that is mainly directed to other boys. For example, in Indonesia, boys were more likely than girls to report being neglected by their parents or witnessing domestic abuse. And such adversities were associated with a greater risk of violent encounters with their peers. 

Moreover, in urban areas of China, Ecuador, Belgium and Indonesia, young people who internalized gender stereotypes that “privilege traditional masculinity and devalue feminine characteristics” were more likely to report symptoms of depression. Conversely, youth who embraced more “gender-equal” perceptions were less likely to report depression. 

The researchers say that adolescence should be seen as a window of opportunity—a time when young people are reevaluating their identities and behaviors. They can encounter certain gender stereotypes that can cause permanent physical, emotional and mental harm. But, if they are able to push back against these gender stereotypes, to break out of their gender-specific universes, they can emerge healthy, strong and self-confident. 

And properly supporting young adolescents before it’s too late is critical for achieving a more gender-equal world. 

For more about GEAS’ work, read this article in the Daily Telegraph and the studies here.