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The number of UK children unhappy with their lives hits decade high

The wellbeing of UK children is on a downward trend, a landmark study by the Children's Society has revealed

Hundreds of thousands of children are unhappy with their lives, a new study has revealed, as pressures around school and their looks drive down wellbeing.

One in 15 young people reported feeling unhappy in 2019, the Children’s Society said, a record high for the decade.

The research exposed a 133,000 increase to 306,000 in the number of 10- to 15-year-olds feeling dejected compared to 2010 levels.

The 10-year downward trend in wellbeing among UK children is “deeply distressing,” said Mark Russell, the charity’s chief executive. “Children’s happiness with their lives has the potential to have far-reaching consequences, and has been linked to their attainment and mental health as well as their safety and hopes for the future. 

“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.”

Girls in particular reported feeling unhappy about their appearance, the report said after finding one in seven were worried about how they look. But there was a sharper increase for boys, with one in eight reporting the same concerns.

Adolescents are facing “unhealthy” pressure at school, researchers found. In 2010, one in 11 young people said they were unhappy at school. That figure had jumped to one in eight by 2019.

The charity’s tenth annual Good Childhood Report draws on a series of research projects including surveys of UK children, interviews and Office for National Statistics data.

Nearly 30 per cent of 10- to 17-year-olds said they do not feel optimistic, or are indifferent, about the future.

Unhappy 14-year-olds are more likely to experience mental health problems, including self harm and attempts to take their own lives, by the time they are 17, according to the study.

Child poverty was linked to emotional struggles, the report said. Children from the poorest households were more likely to experience mental ill-health and behavioural difficulties than their peers in middle, high and very high income households.

A government spokesperson said: “We know the past year has been incredibly difficult and so we are prioritising the wellbeing of children and young people, backed by more than £17 million to build on the mental health support currently available in schools, including our wellbeing for education recovery and return programmes to support students experiencing trauma, anxiety, or grief.”

While young people were generally “incredible resilient” during the pandemic, one in 25 children – an estimated quarter of a million – struggled to cope with Covid-19’s impact on their lives, researchers estimated after 2,000 10 to 17-year-olds were surveyed earlier this year. They warned resources must be dedicated to supporting the mental health of all children who need it.

“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,” said Tom Madders, director of campaigns at charity YoungMinds.

“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.”

A government-funded network of early support hubs across the country would go some way to improving young people’s wellbeing before it deteriorates further, he said.

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Russell called on ministers to develop a “bold and ambitious” plan for UK children, including early intervention services and annual monitoring of young people’s happiness levels as the government currently does for adults.

The report was published on the same day the National Youth Agency warned 2.2 million children living in rural areas were being “consistently overlooked” and left out of the government’s “levelling-up agenda” by a shortfall in services.

These young people are being left “vulnerable to isolation, loneliness and poor mental health,” warned Leigh Middleton, the charity’s chief executive, who urged ministers to include rural youngsters in plans to help children.

“Young people spend 85 per cent of their waking hours each year outside of the school day. It is imperative that they can access safe places to have fun, meet friends and learn new skills, with a trained and trusted adult who knows what is needed.

“Yet there is little or no youth provision in many rural areas.”

The government spokesperson added: “We are also investing £3 billion to boost learning, including £950 million in additional funding for schools which they can use to support pupils’ mental health and wellbeing and our expanded holiday activities and food programme can also be beneficial for children and young people’s physical and mental wellbeing.”

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