January is often a time for depressing news, with the first week back to work or school a test for most still recovering from the holiday season. In this spirit, surely the revelations from the NSPCC that the UK is currently home to “a nation of deeply unhappy children” is among the most depressing – if not alarming – news items on the agenda?
Or it would be, if it were even remotely true.
The remarks were made by NSPCC Chief Executive Peter Wanless while commenting on figures from the confidential counselling service Childline, which is run by the charity. Childline’s figures show that in 2014-15 they provided 286,812 counselling sessions, an enormous rise from the 23,530 run in 1986-87, the first year of the service.
Nearly 300,000 counselling sessions indicates too many unhappy children, but not a nation of unhappy children. Data from the UK Household Longitudinal Study, Understanding Society indicates that just 0.9% of children aged 10-15 describe themselves as ‘not at all happy’. Only 5% describe themselves as even remotely unhappy, while 88% describe themselves as happy (36% as completely happy).
We don’t have a nation of unhappy children, but apparently one of very content children, whose main concern may well be charities telling them how miserable they are.
The apocalyptic suggestion of a nation of deeply unhappy children is based on the overall Childline counselling figures for 2014-15, as well as the 9% rise in the last year of counselling sessions related to low self esteem and unhappiness. The NSPCC explain that this rise is indicative of new concerns today’s children face – cyberbullying, self harm and unhappiness.
Concerns of this nature are not to be trivialised, where they occur they can be devastating and life changing. But by the NSPCC’s own admission, these ‘new’ concerns have replaced sexual abuse, physical abuse and pregnancy. There is surely progress of some kind to be found here?
The NSPCC are also at pains to ensure readers of their statistics do not escape the link they are drawing between the epidemic of childhood unhappiness and social media or cyberbulling. This is 2016’s first entry to the (ig)noble tradition of technophobia, and one ironically undermined in almost the same breath by the trumpeted announcement that 71% of the counselling sessions occurred via email or instant message.
Technology and social connectivity are making our children unhappy, the NSPCC will tell you, except when we’re using it to make them better.
These modern concerns are also not concerns, it would seem, to the vast majority of children, who overall seem to be enjoying their childhoods just fine. But describing the UK as a ‘nation of deeply unhappy children’ is damaging, not only because it obscures the focus from the real problem – the minority of children who are unhappy – but because it drives public opinion with false information.
In 2014, on average, adults in the UK thought that 15% of girls under 16 get pregnant every year. The actual figure is around 0.6% – 25 times less than the perception. The real, empirical, verifiable evidence indicates that the vast majority of children are happy, nurtured and supported. Suggestions like those made by the NSPCC make us view children as living in a world of misery, fear and limited opportunities – when the truth is very different.
Further, the trend data from the Understanding Society surveys tell a story of progress in the last 20 years. Our children have never been happier! Perhaps the interests of the NSPCC would be better served by them taking some of the credit for this progress, rather than blatantly exaggerating in pursuit of sensational headlines.