Children in England are less happy and satisfied with their lives than those in the majority of other European countries and North America, with only South Korean and Ugandan children worse off, a study by The Children’s Society has found.
Although 90% of English children in the study rated themselves as having relatively good wellbeing levels, England still ranked ninth out of a sample of 11 countries around the world in the study, which involved 50,000 children – behind countries such as Romania, Spain, and Algeria and ahead of only South Korea and Uganda.
In a finding that goes against common perceptions, the report said regular use of computers and the internet is not associated with lower wellbeing. In fact, children who never use the internet outside school have much lower wellbeing than children who did so regularly, perhaps reflecting how children felt a lower sense of wellbeing in homes that could not afford computers or with over-controlling parents.
Almost one in five girls in England are unhappy with the way they look, the survey found.
The Good Childhood report – the third in a series published by the Children’s Society – compared England with 39 other European countries and North America, rating it 30th in “wellbeing” – defined as self-reported happiness and satisfaction. In a separate analysis of 11 diverse countries, including rich and poor nations, England is ranked ninth.
It said 18% of girls compared with 9% of boys are dissatisfied with their appearance. In all, about 13% of 10 to 13-year-olds in England say they do not like the way they look. Only children in South Korea fare worse on the question of looks. The problem increases dramatically as young children become teenagers (17% of children aged 12-13 compared with 9% of 10- to 11-year-olds).
“Popularity is very important, you have to be pretty, rich, skinny, clever. If not you get bullied,” one year 9 student said in the report, based on surveys in England of more than 5,000 children.
Children in England are slightly more positive about friends, home and money and possessions, ranking sixth of the 11 countries for these issues.
“Childhood is a happy time for the vast majority in this country. But we can’t shut our eyes and ears to the half a million children who say they are unhappy and dissatisfied with their lives,” said Matthew Reed, chief executive of The Children’s Society. “This new report lifts the lid on the fact that we’re lagging behind so many other countries, including developing nations.”
The report singles out appearance as a particular subject for concern, especially the big gap between girls and boys on how satisfied they are with the way they look.
“The gender gap in satisfaction with this aspect of life occurs only in some countries. More needs to be done to understand the factors at play in creating this gender gap in the UK and in leading to children in the UK faring so poorly on this particular aspect of their wellbeing,” said the report.
The report found evidence of a link between parental depression and child subjective wellbeing. About 15% of children living with a severely depressed mother had low wellbeing, compared to 9% of children who did not. The report also found a link between children’s wellbeing and their financial situation.
Around a third (36%) of children said their families had been affected a “fair amount” or a “great deal” by the economic crisis, and these children were more likely to have low wellbeing. Of these children, those who saw themselves as poorer were twice as likely to say they were unhappy and almost three times more likely to say they had low life satisfaction; even those who said their families were richer were slightly more likely to have low wellbeing.
Dr Miriam Stoppard said the huge range of advice from parenting manuals, friends, family and other places can be overwhelming. The report, however, is based on interviews with thousands of children about what makes them happy with their lives.
“And the good news is that most of it is very straightforward. It’s about taking time to talk – and listen – to our children, showing them warmth, keeping them active and learning, letting them hang out with friends and explore their local environment.”