Number of UK children unhappy with their lives rises – report

Children’s Society says ‘distressing’ findings are warning sign of future issues for teenagers

Growing numbers of British children are unhappy with their lives, with many worrying about school, friends and how they look, a report reveals.

The number of 10- to 15-year-olds who say they are not happy rose from 173,000 (3.8%) in 2009-10 to an estimated 306,000 (6.7%) in 2018-19, the Children’s Society found. That 6.7% – one in every 15 young people – is the highest proportion in the last decade, it said.

The charity lamented the “significant decline in children’s happiness over the decade”, as measured by Essex University research before the Covid pandemic struck in early 2020.

Mark Russell, its chief executive, said: “It’s deeply distressing to see that children’s wellbeing is on a 10-year downward trend and on top of this a number of children have not coped well with the pandemic. Unhappiness at this stage can be a warning sign of potential issues in later teenage years.”

The Children’s Society’s tenth annual Good Childhood Report, which pulls together a number of different research projects, also found that when over 2,000 UK 10- to 17-year-olds were asked in April-June this year to give a mark out of 10 to gauge their happiness with key areas of life, family came top with an average score of 8.1, followed by health (8) and friends (7.8).

However, children were less happy with their future (6.9), school (7.1) and appearance (7.2). More respondents scored below the midpoint, which suggests that they are unhappy, with school than any other domain – 12.2%, compared with just 6% for family.

One in 25 (4%) children have struggled with the upheaval Covid has brought, the report found. Although small in number they are likely to be young people who need mental health help, the report said.

The Essex University research showed that almost as many boys as girls are now dissatisfied with their appearance. That rose sharply over the last decade from 8% to 13% among boys but increased only slightly among girls, from 15% to 16%, “suggesting [that] boys are increasingly feeling the pressures of looking good”, the charity said.

School also emerged as a source of discontent. The percentage of children who said they were unhappy with their school life grew from 9% a decade ago to 12% in 2018-19.

Body image and school are “two areas where teenagers are coming under pressure and held to high standards, having a detrimental impact on their wellbeing”, the Children’s Society added.

It warned that children who are unhappy with their lives at the age of 14 are “significantly more likely” than their peers to display symptoms of mental ill-health by the time they reach 17 or to have self-harmed or tried to take their own life. Young people with low life satisfaction at 14 should be helped to build relationships and avoid being bullied to avoid descent into mental illness, it advised.

Tom Madders, director of campaigns at the mental health charity Young Minds, said: “It is shocking to see a further decline in children and young people’s level of happiness and that thousands are unhappy with their lives overall.

“The last year has been incredibly difficult for lots of young people with many struggling to cope with social isolation, loneliness and worries about the future.

“It’s clear that the pandemic is just one part of the picture, however, with young people facing multiple pressures that are impacting their overall wellbeing.”

The charity’s conclusions are based on data from Essex University’s Understanding Society project and the Millennium Cohort Study run by University College London, which follows the lives of more than 18,000 people born in 2000-02, interviews with children and young people, and Office for National Statistics population figures.

Russell urged ministers to produce an action plan to boost young people’s wellbeing, start measuring their happiness every year in the same way that is already done for adults, and to improve the availability of early intervention services to stop mental health problems worsening.

Sir Peter Wanless, the chief executive of the NSPCC, said: “We know that children continue to struggle with feeling they need to look a certain way, and we’ve delivered nearly 5,000 counselling sessions about body image since last April.

“This goes beyond the pandemic. The findings from the Good Childhood report show a worrying long-term trend. It is imperative that we listen and respond to what children and young people are telling us about their lives.”

The Department of Health and Social Care have been approached for comment.

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Denis Campbell Health policy editor

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