The Good Childhood Report 2020

As well as presenting predominant trends in well-being, our reports seek to understand the experiences of children who have low well-being - what enhances and hinders children’s happiness. We have made every effort to reflect children’s own views in the reports, working with children to identify and focus on topics that they tell us are important, in addition to being guided by the available evidence.

Number of pages:

95 pages

Date published:

Introduction

What is well-being?

‘Well-being’ is used to refer to a range of things in everyday life, such as being happy, not being ill, feeling fulfilled and being financially secure. To quote the What Works Centre for Well-being definition, which is based on the work of ONS: 

‘Well-being, put simply, is about “how we are doing” as individuals, communities and as a nation and how sustainable this is for the future.’

There is continued debate about what constitutes individuals’ well-being in the research community, and, as a result, there are an array of different definitions. Broadly speaking, two different types of measures are employed:

  1. ‘Objective’ measures which use social indicators on people’s lives, such as physical health and education.
  2. ‘Subjective’ measures which focus on people’s own views about how their life is going.

A mix of so-called objective and subjective measures is also commonly used. The ONS, for example, has combined data on health, personal finances and education with self-reported information on personal well-being in its Children’s Well-being dataset.

The Good Childhood Reports focus primarily on children’s own views of their lives – the subjective well-being of children.

What is subjective well-being?

Subjective well-being is an individual’s own assessment of how their life is going.

  • Affective well-being: Positive and negative emotions or how happy people feel (eg the ONS question ‘Overall, how happy did you feel yesterday?’)
  • Cognitive well-being: The quality of people’s lives overall or certain aspects of their lives, including measures of life satisfaction (eg the ONS question ‘Overall, how satisfied are you with your life nowadays?’)
  • Eudaimonic or Psychological well-being: Which looks at whether people are functioning well, and their personal development and growth (eg the ONS question ‘Overall, to what extent do you feel that the things you do in your life are worthwhile?’)

Research has shown that children’s life satisfaction is similar on different days of the week, although their happiness varies, and is generally higher at the weekend.

As The Good Childhood Report is concerned with understanding changes in children’s well-being over the longer term, it has primarily focused on more stable measures of life satisfaction. Children’s differing responses to questions about their happiness, life satisfaction and psychological well-being highlight the benefits of measuring different aspects of their well-being.

Measuring children’s subjective well-being

Research has shown that children’s and adult’s responses to the same set of questions may differ. As a result, there has been a move away from the use of adult-based (eg parent or teacher) assessments of children’s lives, and children’s own self-reported well-being is now commonly accepted as the gold standard of measurement in this area.

There are robust longitudinal studies in the UK that ask children themselves about their life satisfaction. Since 1994, the British Household Panel Survey (succeeded by Understanding Society) has included a short set of questions for children about their happiness with life as a whole, their family, friends, appearance, schoolwork and (from 2003) the school they go to. The Millennium Cohort Study has also asked these questions (at age 11, 14 and 17) of a cohort of children born in 2000–2001. These studies provide imperative information on national trends, and also allow us to track changes in the well-being of the same group of children, which is essential to determining those factors that contribute to and hamper children’s well-being.

As these studies cover a wider range of issues (rather than well-being specifically) there are necessarily some gaps in the information provided. Both Understanding Society and the Millennium Cohort Study employ single rather than multi-item measures (the research has found the latter to be more reliable); and do not measure some domains of well-being – such as time use – which are known to be important.

In 2010, The Children’s Society developed The Good Childhood Index to fill gaps in the available evidence in this area. The index contains a multi-item measure of overall life satisfaction and single-item domain measures of happiness with different aspects of life, which children told us were important to them.

As it is now a decade since it was developed, The Children’s Society is currently in the process of revisiting The Good Childhood Index to check that it continues to reflect those aspects of life that are most important to children. A separate report will be published, outlining the findings from the first stage of this work and looking at the relative importance of children’s digital lives in relation to the single-item domain measures currently captured by the index.

Why is subjective well-being important?

Children’s well-being matters in and of itself. Children have the right to enjoy a good childhood, and for it to equip them with the tools to grow and transition into a good adulthood.

Research has shown that there are variations in the subjective well-being of differing groups of children, and among children with different life experiences in the UK. Previous Good Childhood Reports have, for example, highlighted a number of risk factors for low well-being – such as difficult family relationships, xiv being bullied, being in a family that is under financial strain, and experiencing a combination of social, familial and material disadvantages. The literature has also highlighted important demographic differences. Data from Understanding Society have shown that girls are consistently unhappier with their appearance than boys, and that boys are unhappier with their schoolwork. Analysis of the Millennium Cohort Study showed that children (aged around 14 years old) who said that they were attracted to the same gender, or to both males and females, had significantly lower subjective well-being than children who did not, and that children of Indian ethnicity had significantly higher subjective well-being than children of White and Mixed ethnicity.

International studies such as Children’s Worlds and PISA help put the experiences of children in the UK in a wider context, and enable us to learn about the pressures and benefits that other cultures and education systems place on children’s well-being. Local data enable children’s experiences to be assessed at a lower level, highlighting pressures that might require attention in particular communities.

Understanding children’s experiences and the challenges they face at a local level and across the UK as a whole – and how this compares with that of children internationally – enables professionals and policy makers to prioritise specific areas and groups of children in need of support, and to take action to improve their lives.

Summary

Responses to the Understanding Society survey show that there has been a decline in children’s (aged 10 to 15) mean happiness with friends in recent years. Further analysis of children’s responses shows that the way they score this question is changing and, in recent waves, slightly more children have said they are unhappy/indifferent.

  • Further comparisons by demographic characteristics reveal increased proportions of girls scoring on or below the midpoint for happiness with friends. There has been a decline in mean scores for most of the older ages. However, in the most recent wave, 15 year old children had the lowest mean score overall.
  • While children who scored below the midpoint for happiness with friends reported having significantly fewer close friends that they could turn to if they were in trouble, we did not find there to be a simple correlation between the number of friends and happiness with friends. In fact, the average number of friends children reported had returned to a level similar to 2009-10. Gender differences may play a part, however, with girls reporting significantly fewer close friends than boys (as well as reporting lower mean scores for happiness with friends).
  • While mean scores for happiness with friends varied depending on the level of social media use in 2017-18 and experiences of bullying at school across waves, these experiences did not seem to account for changes in happiness with friends over time – suggesting other factors are also influential.

It seems likely, based on these findings and the results of our consultation with children, that there is something else not captured in the measures in the most recent Understanding Society survey that is influencing children’s scores. It may, for example, be that the qualities of children’s friendships may not be meeting their expectations, as suggested in the qualitative analysis of our consultations.

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If you'd like to learn more about the key findings, you can download the full report or the report summary.