Why are our Young People so Unhappy?

In among all the ongoing media stuff about COVID a really important story slipped past almost unnoticed last week. The Children’s Society published its annual ‘Good Childhood’ report, which revealed that children in the UK are the unhappiest in Europe. Their ‘high life satisfaction’ index stands at 64% ; the highest levels of ‘life satisfaction’ are in France and Spain and Finland, with the highest (85%) in…. Romania. I don’t know much about Romania but it doesn’t just zing out to me as a fount of joy, but – credit where credit’s due – their young people see themselves as being a whole lot happier than ours do. Basically there are twice as many unhappy 15 year olds in Birmingham or Edinburgh as there are in Bucharest. How can that possibly be?

Of course, it’s all got worse during the pandemic. Not being able to go to school, which may have seemed such a jolly wheeze at first, has predictably had a nasty effect on the mental health of our young people – not seeing your friends; being shut in with your parents; all activities cancelled ; your social life in ruins; an increased exposure to the horrors of social media, and all – for 15 year olds – at the point where their friends matter so much and their parents (well, for many) are just so difficult to comprehend even if still indispensable. However – and I am no statistician – let’s assume that the pandemic effect has been pretty equally observed around Europe as COVID has gone about its business.

The report suggests that there is a peculiarly British level of stress going on in our young people’s minds – a particular fear of failure that dogs them. The kind of thing which we might more readily associate with countries like Japan or South Korea, where parental expectations seem to be very high and where educational success is perceived as a key benchmark in any individual’s life history. So young people in these countries have high levels of stress but they do, of course, also get exam results which regularly rate among the best in the world. To be honest, I would rather our kids were happy and confident than unhappy and well qualified, but dismal and average isn’t a helpful combination for the nation.

So, for the unhappy third, what’s happened? We can point fingers in all sorts of directions. Is it social media, all these sites where kids can bitch about each other all night, while their victim lies alone in bed staring at a screen which they can’t bring themselves to shut off? Is it exposure to celebrity crap, with all the promises of unfulfillable lifestyles lived by beautiful but mindless ‘icons’? Is it parenting – are some parents too hard, too soft, too protective, too ambitious, too remote, too close, too worried, too stressed themselves? Have we spoiled the child? How much of this phenomenon is simply caused by poverty? Is Romania not poorer?  And what can we learn from the lives of the happy 64%, because we can’t forget about them, bless them, as they sail forward with smiles on their faces, presumably just dealing with some or all of these factors and managing.

The lives of young people in Britain in 2020 are so complicated, in a way that most of us in – oh let’s call it middle age – can’t remember in our own childhoods. Margaret Mead, the American cultural anthropologist who wrote ‘Coming of Age in Samoa’ thought that too much choice made adolescents miserable and certainly our youngsters have plenty of choice. Just think about watching TV. In 1965, my family was  lucky enough to have a telly, warming up slowly at 5pm every evening, when we could choose one channel…or the other. Today, with lots of kids having a TV in their room, or on their phone, or on their iPad, they have thousands of choices and they flick among them endlessly, never settling: and it’s their choice alone, because – for many – their parents and siblings are watching their own choices in other rooms which might as well be on Mars. And there’s drugs and porn and still, always, the beating throb of checking Snapchat for the right message from the right person. Plus climate change and Brexit and Trump and, just now, granny stranded in a care home. I am very glad I was young when I was young. I don’t think, to be honest, I ever looked at my adolescent self – maybe confused, maybe immature, maybe very silly – and found myself stressed.

Whatever the cause, unhappiness, stress and anxiety among our young people is an epidemic, maybe even more difficult to deal with that the present all-consuming one. When this particular virus settles, dealing with all the sadness in our young people must become a priority for government. We need to determine why this is happening and then start the processes which will make our youngsters happy, confident individuals. Wait a minute – ‘confident individuals’? Isn’t that something that Curriculum for Excellence set out to encourage, one of the ‘four capacities’? Whatever – our schools have an important part to play in getting this right, and I hope that the government in Holyrood will see the necessity of setting up the right investigative group to find out how we can deal with all this misery.

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