UK Children's Life Happiness 'Lowest Since 2009'

Nicky Broyd

August 28, 2019

The latest annual report from the Children's Society on the state of children's wellbeing suggests 219,000 are unhappy with their lives.

Overall, it said most children were still content with their lives. However, happiness with their lives as a whole was at its lowest since 2009, something it described as a 'national scandal'.

The Good Childhood Report into children's well-being began in 2005 and is produced by the charity and researchers from the University of York.

It combines the society's household survey with parents and children of 8-17 year old, school surveys, the longitudinal studies Understanding Society and the Millennium Cohort Study.

The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) said the report showed how childhood was "often harder and more stressful than it should be".

Happiness Scores

The latest percentages for life factors given low scores by children were:

  • School (12%)

  • 'Things' (10.1%)

  • Appearance (9.7%)

  • Choice (8.5%)

  • Future (6.3%)

  • Friends (5.7%)

  • Home (5.7%)

  • Health (5.2%)

  • Time use (4.9%)

  • Family (3.7)

The Children's Society highlighted certain aspects of the data:

Among boys aged 10-15, 7.7% were unhappy with their appearance, with this unhappiness more common after 13. The gap with girls over appearance concerns is narrowing, it said. Social media could be one reason. It quoted one boy's answer talking about Instagram and other platforms: "You see all these models, you see all these weight lifters, body-builders and you look at yourself and you’re like – I look like a stick. I feel like we’re exposed to a lot more so we are less secure about our appearance."

When it came to school life, 11.8% were unhappy, a measure at its lowest since 2009. This was not necessarily to do with schoolwork and learning but among 14-15 year-olds bullying and feeling unsafe at school contributed to the unhappiness. One secondary school girl told the researchers: "A lot of things get stolen and people are rude and rough. Yesterday someone kicked my bag, called me a rude name and spat in my face."

On friendships, 2.8% were unhappy with their friends. Factors could include bullying, inability to spend time with friends outside school, excessive social media use, and loneliness.

Future financial concerns matter to children with 33% of 10-17 year-olds worrying about having enough money in the future, and 29% worrying about getting a job.  

Wider societal issues included crime, the environment, and online information sharing. A fifth were concerned about Brexit and the economy.

Future mental and physical health concerns were a worry for 17%. Children with low life satisfaction scores were more likely to be quite or very worried about their future mental health than other children.

The charity admits not all questions worked "as well as we might have hoped". This included asking about fights in their area and how much money they had compared with their friends.

Children "Progressively Unhappy'

In a statement, Mark Russell, Children’s Society chief executive, said: "Modern childhood is a happy and carefree time for most, yet for too many it is not. It is a national scandal that children’s unhappiness is increasing so quickly.

"Today’s young people are becoming progressively unhappy with their friendships – one of the fundamental building blocks of well-being – as well as appearance and school. Children are also burdened with fears ranging from worrying about the future, not having enough money to not feeling safe at school and bullying. Many young people tell us they feel side-lined and ignored by those in power.

"We are urging the Government to introduce a national measurement of children’s well-being so we can really listen, respond and show young people they matter. Together we can build a brighter future and bring optimism and confidence back to being young."

Better Data Needed

Responding to the report in a statement, Dr Max Davie, RCPCH officer for health improvement, said: "This research shows that childhood is often harder and more stressful than it should be. We have a responsibility as adults to give children the best possible start in life and it's concerning that nearly a quarter of a million children say they’re unhappy. This report highlights that children’s happiness with life is at a 10 year low, and must act as a catalyst for urgent government action.

"We support the call for a national measurement of well-being for children aged 11-18. In our own research, we’ve advocated for an integrated system of data measurement across the UK. Better data helps decision makers understand how children's lives really are and to take the necessary action. It’s also vital for those of us working to promote and protect children’s health."

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