Last reviewed 9 September 2021

The Children’s Society has recently reported on the decline in levels of happiness among children and young people. Michael Evans considers the findings of the Society’s latest survey.

The Children’s Society

In the 140 years since its establishment, The Children’s Society has always believed that every young person deserves a good childhood. In the 1990s the Society began a programme of ongoing research, and this year published its tenth Good Childhood Report on the wellbeing of children in the UK.

Unhappy feelings

The 2021 Report indicates that 7% of the UK’s 10 to15-year-olds are unhappy with their lives and have concerns about the future. This is quite alarming because this number is heading towards double what it was ten years ago. While the majority of young people continue to be happy with family relationships and schoolwork, there has been a decline in young people’s feelings towards life as a whole.

These feelings of wellbeing include specific aspects of life such as family, friends, appearance, school, and schoolwork. Evidence suggests that these feelings of wellbeing begin to decline as children grow older. There are significant differences between boys and girls. The wellbeing of girls tends to be lower across a range of factors, such as overall life satisfaction and appearance, while the chief cause of unhappiness among boys is with school.

Perceived appearance is important to young people. An estimated 1 in 7 girls tend to be significantly dissatisfied with their appearance and their body, feeling under constant pressure to look pretty and to have the right figure. This tends to make them less self-confident than boys. However, in recent years boys have also become more worried about their appearance, and it is now estimated that 1 in 8 boys are not happy with how they look. Feelings of happiness naturally plummet in a school where there is an atmosphere of widespread appearance-related comments and behaviours.

Money, or lack of it, can have a significant effect on a child’s happiness and wellbeing. A major concern for a child is when the family is in financial difficulty. A teenager who has experienced family-income poverty from an early age is likely to have a much lower life satisfaction and higher depressive symptoms. Happiness can also be influenced by a child’s perception of their family’s financial situation relative to that of their friends. If the friends’ families are better off financially, they are likely to have a more superior range of possessions.

Mental health and wellbeing are not directly linked. A young person can have good mental health but a poor level of wellbeing and vice versa, but children with low wellbeing and/or poor mental health have a much higher than average risk of self-harming.

Happy feelings

Understandably, children who are close to their parents report higher satisfaction and happiness in the home, leading to happiness with life as a whole.

Happiness in school is generally associated with feeling safe and having good relationships with teachers, who will spend time to listening to them. Bullying is an issue that can result in a lower sense of wellbeing for the victim. Friends are important as someone to be turned to in times of trouble.

Playing sport or taking regular exercise can have beneficial effects regarding feelings of wellbeing. Young people with lower life satisfaction are less likely to be physically active and those with a long-standing illness will have significantly lower feelings of wellbeing.

Local environment can have a significant effect on wellbeing. Positive factors involve places to go and things to do, with safety and freedom being major considerations. Correspondingly, in an area where there is rubbish, noise, graffiti and drug or alcohol use, children will feel much less safe.

It is accepted that the five ways to wellbeing are:

  • connecting with friends and family

  • being creative

  • being active

  • keeping learning

  • taking notice.

The Pandemic

The restrictions imposed by the pandemic obviously had a significant effect on all young people. This has been a time when they have been forced to make considerable changes to their lives. However, when questioned about how they coped with the pandemic, 85% of young people reported that they had coped quite well, although almost 1 in 12 children reported the opposite. Since this equates to roughly a quarter of a million children, it is quite a worrying figure.

Nearly all young people missed seeing their friends and family members during lockdown and regretted not being able to follow their hobbies or being prevented from taking part in sporting activities. A significant number of young people particularly disliked school closures and having to work at home. There was also concern among many about the cancellation or changing of examinations. Others disliked having to self-isolate when their school or college was open.

Vaccination of young people has become a rather contentious issue. Around 62% of the 10 to 17-year-olds who were questioned said that they would like to get a COVID-19 vaccination if and when it is available to them, while 11% said that they would not. The remainder were undecided.

When parents were asked the same question, their answers were very similar, with 66% agreeing that vaccination would be worthwhile, and 11% not agreeing. Again, there was some indecision about this. In most cases parental responses matched those of their child.

A look to the future

As far as the future is concerned, 72% of young people actually feel quite positive about this, although a great many have worries. Chief areas of concern among teenagers are having enough money, finding a job, getting good exam grades, going to university for those who want to, and ensuring that they stay in good physical and mental health.

Social issues are another cause of worry. These include homelessness and the number of refugees and migrants who have been forced to leave their home countries because of war. Other worries include the environment, unemployment, levels of crime including drugs and knife crime, inequality, online safety and the possibility of new illnesses and pandemics in the future.

Their feelings about the future are closely linked to their current sense of wellbeing and are an important consideration in ensuring their recovery from the pandemic. Concerns will vary according to the impacts that the pandemic has had on their family and how well they coped overall. Those who have found it harder to cope with the strictures of the pandemic find it harder to cope with their worries about the future.

Guarded optimism

Although the Children’s Society reports that 7% of young people are unhappy with their lives, this number is relatively small, suggesting that over 90% of young people are fairly content. However, the 7% who are unhappy should not be overlooked because they are the ones needing the greatest support.

Summary

  • The Children’s Society’s has produced its tenth Good Childhood Report.

  • 7% of young people are reported to be unhappy with their lives and there are many reasons for this. Correspondingly, many children are happy and content with life in general.

  • While 1 in 12 young people had difficulty in coping with the pandemic, 85% reported that they managed to cope quite well. Most young people and their parents are in favour of vaccination, but there are mixed views about this.

  • 72% of young people have an optimistic view of the future, but they continue to have concerns about personal outcomes. Many also worry about social issues and world events.

  • Although 7% of young people are unhappy with their lives, the vast majority are content. It is important not to overlook the support that is needed for the 7% minority.