31 Aug 2016

More than a quarter of a million girls in Britain are unhappy with their lives, with huge numbers struggling with the way they look, according to the latest Good Childhood Report.

The Children’s Society’s annual state-of-the-nation review of young people’s well-being finds an estimated 283,000 girls aged 10-15 say they are not happy with their lives overall – one in seven of all girls in that age group.

The picture is even starker when it comes to personal appearance, with the number of 10-15 year-old girls who do not feel happy with their looks reaching 700,000 across the UK – more than a third (34%) of the total.

Matthew Reed, Chief Executive of The Children’s Society, said: 'It is desperately worrying that so many of our young people are suffering rather than thriving. Girls are having a particularly tough time and it’s clear that concerted action is needed to tackle this problem.'

One teenage girl said: 'There are so many things that are difficult about being a young person. There are so many pressures from your friends, from your family. You don’t know who you are going to be, you are trying to find who you are in a certain way.'

Another said: 'Girls feel pressured by the boys that they should look a particular way and that leads girls into depression or low self-esteem and makes girls feel ugly or worthless.'

The picture for girls is even worse than it was five years previously, with the number who do not feel happy overall up 21% between 2009/10 and 2013/14 and the number unhappy with their appearance in particular up 8% over the same period.

In contrast to the deteriorating picture for girls, the proportion of boys aged 10-15 who are unhappy with their lives has remained stable at one in nine, while the proportion of boys who say they are unhappy with their appearance continues to hover around 20%.

The trend builds on findings from last year’s Good Childhood Report, in which England ranked last out of 15 countries for happiness with appearance and also had the most pronounced gender differences of all participating countries. The same report suggested that gender differences in children’s well-being are not inevitable.

The reasons for the widening gender gap are unclear, but the report does find that emotional bullying such as name-calling, which girls are more likely to experience, is twice as common as physical bullying, which is more likely to affect boys. About half of all children aged 10 to 15 had been bullied at school in the past month, the report finds.

Separate research by the Office for National Statistics suggests that girls are much more likely to spend extended periods on social media, which has been linked to a higher risk of mental ill-health.

The Good Childhood Report, a collaboration between The Children’s Society and the University of York, highlights the clear link between unhappiness and mental health problems, underlining the importance of tackling low well-being to address mental ill-health. Boys and girls experience mental health problems in different ways. While boys aged 10 and 11 are less happy than girls with their school work and more likely to experience conduct and attention/hyperactivity problems, girls experience anxiety and depression significantly more than boys – and become increasingly unhappy with their appearance – as they get older.

The report, the latest in a series of studies into children’s lives based on surveys of thousands of young people, finds that at age 12, 10% of children overall are ‘languishing’ in lives they feel have little meaning and purpose – with low scores on both happiness with life and psychological well-being.

The research also finds that children’s perceptions and experiences of their local area, including on the quality of facilities, how safe they feel, and how much freedom they perceive they have, are clearly linked to how happy they feel. The two local problems with the strongest links to well-being are ‘noisy neighbours’ and ‘people drinking or taking drugs’.

The Children’s Society is calling on Government to take action to improve children’s happiness across the nation with a legal entitlement for children to be able to access mental health and well-being support in schools and FE colleges across England and Wales. The Government must also reaffirm its commitment to understanding, measuring and acting to improve children’s well-being.

Local authorities can also do a great deal to deliver change for children’s well-being, by listening to children’s views about what matters to them and making sure they are directly involved in decision making about their local areas.

Matthew Reed, Chief Executive of The Children’s Society, added: 'All children deserve a happy childhood and we must never accept that it is somehow inevitable that so many children in Britain should live in distress. As a first step all children should be able to access mental health and wellbeing support in school. Children must be heard and helped.'

Additional quotes from secondary school girls

'There is a lot of pressure to look good, you get called names no matter what, people always say stuff behind your back, boys always call you ugly if you have spots, or a slag if you wear makeup.'

'We’re expected to be perfect, like Barbie dolls or something and if we don’t then we get bullied.'

'I was so behind with my work, I gave up, I didn’t care about it. I would just sleep all the time, it just felt like my life was fading away. I didn’t really care. All that I’d soaked up inside, I felt like screaming but no-one was listening.'

Media enquiries

For more information, please call The Children’s Society media team on 020 7841 4422 or email media@childrenssociety.org.uk. For out-of-hours enquiries please call 07810 796 508.

Notes to editors

  • An interactive version of the Good Childhood Report 2016 is available via this link: www.childrenssociety.org.uk/what-we-do/research/the-good-childhood-report
  • The Good Childhood Report 2016 marks the 11th anniversary of The Children’s Society and the University of York’s joint research on children’s subjective well-being. It is believed to be the most extensive and coherentof national research on children’s subjective well-being anywhere in the world
  • The Good Childhood Report uses evidence from a number of sources, including:
    o The Children’s Society household surveys: since 2010, we have conducted regular surveys of 2,000 households in England, Scotland and Wales with parents and children aged eight to 17. The surveys collect data on the well-being of children and parents, as well as household data such as income and occupations. So far 30,000 children have been involved in 15 waves of the survey
    o The Children’s Society schools surveys: since 2008, we have conducted three major schools-based well-being surveys, the last of which was undertaken in 2013-14 as part of the Children’s Worlds international study. To date, these schools surveys have involved over 17,000 children aged 8 to 15
    o Understanding Society: this longitudinal study involves 40,000 households in Britain and includes questions for children aged 10 to 15
  • When we refer to the number or proportion of children that are ‘unhappy’, we mean those that selected on or above the midpoint of a scale from 1-7 on which 1 is ‘completely happy’ and 7 is ‘not at all happy’.
  • Figures on the number of children who are unhappy with their lives and appearance are calculated by combining the percentages from the Understanding Society data that are presented in the report with the ONS mid-year population estimates for the relevant age group (i.e. 10-15-year-olds) and relevant years (i.e. 2009/10 and 2013/14): http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/pop-estimate/population-estimates-for-uk--england-and-wales--scotland-and-northern-ireland/mid-2014/index.html (Reference table MYE2).
  • The ONS research on use of social media is available here: http://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/wellbeing/articles/measuringnationalwellbeing/2015-10-20
  • The Children’s Society is a national charity that runs local services, helping children and young people when they are at their most vulnerable, and have nowhere left to turn. We also campaign for changes to laws affecting children and young people, to stop the mistakes of the past being repeated in the future. Our supporters around the country fund our services and join our campaigns to show children and young people they are on their side.