Are our teenagers happy?

Stuart Nicholson, Principal of Cambridge Centre for Sixth-form Studies
Stuart Nicholson, Principal of Cambridge Centre for Sixth-form Studies

Young people’s increasing reliance on the virtual world is doing nothing to help the anxiety that three-quarters of British 15-year-olds say they feel. Recent research indicating that across the globe the majority of teenagers are reasonably happy with their lot should come as good news to those of us accustomed to hearing a great deal about the problems of increasing mental illness amongst young people, but unfortunately British children came 38th out of 48 countries.

On a scale from 0 to 10, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) study found the highest levels of satisfaction in the Dominican Republic (8.5), Mexico (8.3) and Costa Rica (8.2), while Asian teenagers in Korea (6.4), Hong Kong (6.5), Macau (6.6) and Taiwan (6.6) recorded low levels of satisfaction.

UK teenagers had a below average satisfaction score of seven, with anxiety about exams and bullying remaining a problem for many young people. Addiction to internet use was also found to lead to many feeling lonely and less satisfied. Girls were found to be less cheerful about life than boys, and disadvantaged students reported relatively lower life satisfaction.

Almost three-quarters of British children reported anxiety about school tests even when they were well prepared, which doesn’t seem a particular concern to me, or a surprise. I think 15-year-olds, like the rest of us, ought to feel a bit nervous before an examination. The percentage was much more than the OECD average however, and perhaps reflects the degree of external pressure that characterises our school testing and league table obsessions. It’s when the level of anxiety has clinical consequences that things have got way out of proportion – and I’ve written in previous columns about the alarming frequency with which we see this in British teenagers. Maybe the general level of anxiety says more about our pressurised schooling system than I initially realised. Bullying, sadly, blights far too many young lives, with almost one in four saying they were victims of bullying a few times a month or more.

Parents and teachers were found to be very influential in creating a happy childhood. Teenagers perceived a high level of parental support, with 93% saying their parents encouraged them to be confident and 94% saying parents were interested in their school activities. The quality of professional teacher-student relationships is one of the defining characteristics of good schools in the UK and I know how much store my colleagues at CCSS, quite rightly, set by this. Students who felt their teacher was willing to provide help and was interested in their learning were about 30% more likely to feel that they belonged at school, researchers found.

The online world continues to encroach on and influence our young people and this struck me as of real relevance for those of us caring for the development of the next generation. Students spent more than two hours online during a typical weekday after school and more than three hours online during a typical weekend day (putting it into context though, figures from children’s research specialist Childwise show the figure for TV viewing back in 2000/1 was about the same as today’s internet use).

It is no surprise that the majority said the internet was a great resource for obtaining information, but it is a reflection of the pervasive nature of the virtual experience that more than half said they felt bad if no internet connection was available. The real world continues to be necessary for a happy existence it seems, as students who spent more than six hours online on weekdays outside of school hours were more likely to report that they were not satisfied with their life or that they felt lonely at school.

With the time teenagers spend online outside school increasing by at least 40 minutes a day between 2012 and 2015, that direction of travel in terms of happy and well-balanced children isn’t looking like the right road.

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