The Good Childhood Report 2017

Last month, The Children’s Society launched the latest edition of its annual Good Childhood Report, which presents the latest trends and insights into children’s subjective well-being. Our research programme, which we set up in 2005 in partnership with the University of York, aims to fill a gap in the research about how life is going from the perspective of children themselves and for the full range of well-being domains that are important to children.

In this year’s report, we update our time series analysis of children’s subjective well-being with the latest available data, and consider different explanations for some of the gender patterns that have emerged in these trends over time.  We also present new insights into how multiple experiences of disadvantage are linked to children’s well-being.

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Time trends and gender patterns

In successive Good Childhood Reports, we have drawn on the latest available data from Understanding Society to present trends in children’s subjective well-being from 2009/10 onwards. The latest report shows that children’s happiness with their life as a whole and relationships with friends is at its lowest point since 2009/10, driven by a trend of girls becoming increasingly unhappy with these domains over time. There is also a long-standing gender difference in happiness with appearance that has been growing since 2002.

Gender differences in satisfaction with appearance, 2000 to 2015

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Children aged 11 to 15. British Household Panel Survey, 2000 to 2008, weighted data, three-year smoothed moving average. Understanding Society, 2009–10 to 2014–15, weighted data, three-year smoothed moving average from 2011-12

Furthermore, as children get older, the gender gap for happiness with life as a whole and appearance widens.

Given that there is relatively little insight into the reasons for these gender patterns, we wanted to explore two explanations that have been put forward – social media usage and experiences of bullying.

We know that bullying is important for children’s well-being and that there are gender differences in different types of bullying, with boys more likely to be physically bullied and girls more likely to experience relational bullying. However, in our analysis, these differences did not help to explain gender patterns in well-being.

For social media, the reverse was the case. We found high intensity social media use (more than four hours on a normal school day) to be associated with lower well-being for girls in particular, and to explain some of the gender differences in well-being.  However, in comparison to other factors, social media use was much less important than other factors – such as bullying and family support – in explaining differences in children’s well-being overall.

Comparison of the statistical power of different factors in explaining variations in children’s life satisfaction

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Interestingly, children with low intensity social media usage (less than an hour on a normal school day) did not have lower levels of well-being than those who do not belong to social media at all, and low intensity usage appears to have some benefits in terms of happiness with friendships.

Multiple disadvantage

We asked 3,000 children aged 10 to 17 and their parents about a list of 27 disadvantages relating to family relationships as well as family/household, economic and neighbourhood circumstances. Some of the disadvantages that we asked about – such as worry about crime or struggling with bills – were relatively common while others – such as not having their own bed or having a family member in prison – affected a small minority of children.

According to our estimates, just under a million 10 to 17-year-olds are not facing any of these disadvantages, but this is a small minority of children. A more widespread experience, affecting more than half of the population, is to have three or more disadvantages in their lives.  One million children are facing seven or more disadvantages.

Individually, almost all of the disadvantages were linked with lower well-being. Struggling with bills was the factor that best explained differences in well-being across the whole sample, while children experiencing emotional neglect had the lowest average well-being.

Individual disadvantages and children’s life satisfaction

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Importantly, the disadvantages had a cumulative effect. We found an incremental relationship between multiple disadvantage and children’s well-being: the greater the number of disadvantages that children face, the more likely they were to experience low well-being. Children facing 7 or more disadvantages were ten times more likely to be unhappy with their lives than those with none.

Multiple disadvantage and low well-being

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The evidence outlined in this year’s Good Childhood Report points to the importance of early support for children to prevent the escalation of disadvantage. We are, therefore, calling on the Government to address the expected shortfall in funding for children’s services in the Autumn Budget, and urging local authorities to prioritise the well-being of children experiencing multiple disadvantage. To hear more about our campaign, click here.

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Mental Health and Safeguarding in Childhood (1880-1920)

The approaches to safeguarding and supporting mental health and wellbeing in childhood today, are not all that different from those in the Victorian and Edwardian times.  Studying a total of 120 case files from the Children’s Society’s archives from 1880-1920, with a specific focus on language around mental health, revealed a number of similarities. The reasons for being taken into care, were and are still very much the same, namely based around the relationship between child and family, mental health of the parents and alcoholism (and surprisingly few children were taken into care due to being orphans in the Victorian/Edwardian times as is commonly thought).

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Joined up working and multi-agency teamwork is now, as it was then, problematic; practice is fragmented, partly due to lack of funding. In addition to this, the child’s ‘voice’ seems to be only sporadically acknowledged – then and now. For example, one case file from 1920 refers to a 16 year old girl asking to ‘come out of the asylum’ and ‘start afresh’; this never happened. Similar developments can still be seen now, where children have a lack of choice in what happens to them in care, with care leavers describing the care system as ‘extremely disappointing’, whilst reflecting upon this. Other similarities are a focus on the child’s behaviour, and practical and cognitive abilities (e.g. think about the current focus on ‘NEET’, not in education, training or employment), at the cost of attention for mental health and wellbeing.

This research was presented at the European Society for the History of Human Sciences conference (ESHHS) in Italy, by Dr Wendy Sims-Schouten an academic in Childhood Studies at the University of Portsmouth, drawing on her research on mental health in childhood, funded by the Wellcome Trust. The purpose of ESHHS is to promote international, multidisciplinary cooperation in scholarly activity and research in the history of the human sciences.

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The term ‘mental health’ was popularised in the early 1900s by physicians and social reformers. Over a century later, mental health and wellbeing are recurrent themes in the media and on government agendas, with evidence that still more needs to be done on this front. This research shows how many of the issues that concern contemporary studies of childhood (e.g. parenting, poverty) have a historical trajectory that informs the present. Stigma continues to play a significant role, and understandings are subject to the interests and values of the people, organisations and institutions attempting to define and interpret terms.

Comparing the historic research in the Children’s Society archives with current date from 84 interviews with school children, young care leavers and parents reveals that although language around mental health and wellbeing has developed (e.g. correspondence in 1880 refers to a young girl as a ‘lunatic’ and a father as ‘hopelessly insane’) the approach taken by those responsible for children’s welfare has changed remarkably little in over 100 years.  More needs to be done to improve mental health care and reduce stigma and I hope some of this research can be used to challenge today’s interpretation and treatment and get the best for our children.