Children in the UK have the lowest levels of life satisfaction across Europe, with “a particularly British fear of failure” partly to blame, according to a major report into childhood happiness.
More than a third of UK 15-year-olds scored low on life satisfaction, the annual Good Childhood Report from the Children’s Society found. They also fared badly across happiness measurements including satisfaction with schools, friends and sense of purpose compared to children in other European countries.
The rise in UK child poverty and school pressures were cited alongside the fear of failure as reasons why only 64% of UK children experienced high life satisfaction – the lowest figure of 24 countries surveyed by the OECD.
Children in Romania had the highest levels of life satisfaction (85%), just ahead of Finland (84%), while the UK fared worse than Spain (82%) and France (80%).
“Children and young people talk a lot about the pressure that get placed on them to do well,” said Richard Crellin, one of the authors of the report. “We reflected this could be linked to a pressure in British society to take things on the chin and have a stiff upper lip. Young people across the UK told [how] they feel judged if they don’t succeed first time.”
Mark Russell, chief executive of the Children’s Society, added: “As a society we can’t be content with children in the UK being the most unsatisfied with their lives in Europe. It has to change.”
Data for the report was collected before the coronavirus pandemic struck, suggesting things may now be significantly worse for the UK’s young people. In July a survey by the Children’s Society found that nearly one in five children aged 10-17 in the UK – the equivalent of 1.1 million – reported being unhappy with their lives as a whole during the coronavirus lockdown, up from an average of 10-13% over the last five years.
“Even before the pandemic, which we know has taken a huge toll on our children’s wellbeing, many felt their life didn’t have a sense of purpose. We believe it is not only a fear of failure – which in previous research we found was higher amongst those living in poverty – but also rising child poverty levels that could partly be to blame,” said Russell. He called on the government to “hit the reset button” and introduce a national measure of children’s wellbeing.
Between 2015 and 2018, the UK had the largest increase in relative child poverty – around 4 percentage points, while average levels of child poverty fell by around 2 percentage points across the 24 countries, according to Eurostat data in the report.
Fifteen-year-olds in the UK had the greatest fear of failure across 24 European countries assessed by the OECD’s Programme for International Assessment (Pisa). Those from Switzerland, Romania and Austria had the lowest fear of failure scores with only Malta coming close to the UK score.
The report adds that UK has some of the highest levels of school work pressure reported by 15-year-olds, according to data from the 2017-18 Health Behaviours in School-Aged Children Survey (HBSC). England came third out of 45 countries, with 74% of girls and 62% of boys reporting feeling pressured by schoolwork. Wales ranked fifth (75% of girls and 55% of boys) and Scotland sixth (74% of girls and 53% of boys).
The UK has also seen the sharpest drop in childhood life satisfaction in the past five years, according to the report, which compared the UK to EU countries for the first time in 2015. It was 19th out of 21 countries in 2015 with a score of 6.98, just above Italy (6.89) and Greece (6.91). But while there was a slight increase in life satisfaction in these two other countries, in the UK it fell substantially.
The report also found that girls were unhappier than boys with almost a quarter of 15-year-olds girls struggling with their wellbeing. The gap between boys’ and girls’ happiness was also more pronounced than in any other country Pisa looked at.
In the UK 23% of girls had low wellbeing scores across at least three of the four measures (life satisfaction, happiness, sadness and sense of purpose) compared to 14% of boys. Girls tended to be happier than boys at the end of primary school but between the ages of 10-15 their wellbeing “falls off a cliff”, said Crellin.
Friendships were also a cause of pain for some. Between 2009 and 2017, the number of UK children aged 10 to 15 who were unhappy with their friends rose from an estimated 86,000 (1.9%) to around 155,000 (3.5%), according to data from the Understanding Society study cited in the report. The report also found that 3% children in the UK said they had no close friends they could talk to if they were in trouble.
Prof Tamsin Ford, from the faculty of child and adolescent psychiatry at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said the report’s findings were very worrying, particularly as 2020 had been especially distressing for lots of children.
“We want to see a strong focus from government on improving children and young people’s mental health to make sure this generation of children are not forgotten about,” she said. “We must do everything we can to support their wellbeing, including the increased provision of mental health support in schools and specialist mental health treatment for all children who need it.”