Wellbeing of children in the UK: Where are we now?

Dr Louise Moore

Since measurement of children’s wellbeing began, there have been many changes to children’s lives. Not least, the rise in social media, changes to schools and, more recently, debates around climate change and Brexit.

How do these changes make young people feel? The Children’s Society recently published its eighth Good Childhood Report looking at the subjective wellbeing of children in the UK. The report makes use of data from the Understanding Society (UKHLS) Youth Survey on this issue. Since the survey started in 2009, children aged 10 to 15 have been asked questions directly about their happiness with life as a whole and five aspects of life: family, friends, appearance, school work and school.

Thankfully, the vast majority of children are happy with their lives, which is reflected in their responses to all six questions. The good thing about keeping track of changes over time is that it can bring to our attention areas of life where children are thriving – and highlight those they are finding more difficult. It can also help us to identify more vulnerable groups of children who are in need of our support.

What did we find overall? 

Using children’s responses to the questions on happiness with the six aspects of life, we calculated mean scores on a scale of 0 to 10 (where 0 is not at all happy and 10 is completely happy) and compared the mean scores obtained in the first and latest wave of the survey*. 

Our analysis showed reductions in children’s mean happiness with their life as a whole (from 8.17 to 7.89) and with their friends (from 8.99 to 8.59), which are consistent with the downward trends in mean scores for these questions reported in other recent years.

Trends in children’s happiness with different aspects of life, UK, 2009–10 to 2016–17

In the latest available wave of Understanding Society, children’s mean happiness with school was also significantly lower than when the survey began. It will be important to revisit children’s responses to this question in the next dataset to see whether this is a one-off occurrence or whether happiness with this aspect of their lives continues to decrease.

There was no significant difference between children’s happiness with their family, appearance or school work when comparing responses from the first and most recent wave of the survey. While mean happiness with family has been relatively consistent since the survey began, appearance and school work have moved around and shown significant changes in other years, however. 

Are there differences between boys and girls?

We also looked at children’s happiness with these six aspects of life by gender across all waves of the survey. For this age group (10 to 15 year olds), the greatest gender differences have consistently been for appearance (with which boys are happier than girls) and school work (with which girls are happier). The gap in mean scores for appearance between girls and boys has begun to narrow in recent years, however, and, in the latest wave of the survey, while still higher than for girls (at 7.34 compared to 6.87), the mean happiness score for boys was at its lowest since the survey began.

 Trends in children’s happiness with different aspects of life by gender, UK, 2009–10 to 2016–17

key to table

There have been no consistent gender differences in children’s happiness with life as a whole, family, friends or school. 

So what are the implications of these findings?

We know that children’s happiness with their lives as a whole has fallen and that we must take action to try to address this. We need to better understand, for example, why children feel less happy with their friends than when the Understanding Society Youth Survey began, given how important relationships are to their overall wellbeing. 

There has been a great deal of focus on girls’ lower scores for happiness with appearance. While it is important to keep trying to understand and address this, we also need to do more to better understand why boys’ mean happiness scores might be declining and to tackle this.

As the Understanding Society survey highlights, we should prioritise children’s own views of what makes a good childhood and how they see their lives, and, in our policy work, we are therefore making the case for comprehensive national measurement of children’s wellbeing on a similar scale to that for adults. 

Read the Good Childhood Report

Note: The 7-point scale (1-7) used for these measures in Understanding Society, where higher values represent lower happiness, is reversed and converted to a 0 to 10 scale (0 – not at all happy to 10 – completely happy) to ease interpretation and comparison with other measures presented in The Good Childhood Report.

Author

Dr Louise Moore

Dr Louise Moore is a Senior Researcher at The Children’s Society working on wellbeing and mental health.