A study conducted by researchers at Boston University found evidence to suggest that children who play football before the age of 12 have an elevated risk of long-term behavioral and cognitive health problems.
“The brain is going through this incredible time of growth between the years of 10 and 12, and if you subject that developing brain to repetitive head impacts, it may cause problems later in life,” Robert Stern, one of the authors of the study, said of the findings.
The study used 214 former players who began playing football before turning 12 years old. Of the 214, 43 played in high school, 103 went on to play in college, and 68 made it to the NFL.
The current average age of the players involved in the study is 51.
This study did not look at any brain scans. It was based solely on behavioral changes described to them by the players they studied.
In an op-ed for the New York Times in 2015, Dr. Bennett Omalu (the doctor actor Will Smith plays in the movie "Concussion") essentially begged parents to keep their kids from playing contact football until their brains were fully developed.
“Our children are minors who have not reached the age of consent. It is our moral duty as a society to protect the most vulnerable of us. The human brain becomes fully developed at about 18 to 25 years old. We should at least wait for our children to grow up, be provided with the information and education on the risk of play, and let them make their own decisions. No adult, not a parent or a coach, should be allowed to make this potentially life-altering decision for a child. “We have a legal age for drinking alcohol; for joining the military; for voting; for smoking; for driving; and for consenting to have sex. We must have the same when it comes to protecting the organ that defines who we are as human beings.”
The Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL) has strict concussion protocol that all teams, regardless of sports, are expected to follow. Essentially, "when in doubt, sit them out."
Here's a concussion awareness training test available to anyone from the CDC.
These studies aren't meant to scare parents into removing their kids from football, at least not according to a co-author of a 2016 study on the subject by Wake Forest University researchers.
“We aren't out to destroy football, by any means,” Joel Stitzel told The Atlantic. “This is the type of work that's going to save and help football going forward.”
Stitzel added that it's key to make sure your child's youth football league has national oversight, like Pop Warner or USA Football. Those leagues are more likely to create guidelines that better reflect the latest research about head injuries.
Here's some great info from USA Football's "Heads Up Football" program, which was launched in 2012 and has blossomed into a leader in bringing safety to youth football.