How a wellbeing measure can improve policy-making for teens

NPC’s paper, That awkward age, analyses wellbeing data for over 8,000 children in the UK aged 10-17, collected by more than 100 charities and schools over four years between 2011-2015.

It finds that:

  • Girls are less happy than boys: 1 in 4 boys (26%), and 1 in 3 girls (35%), report their overall wellbeing as average or lower
  • Wellbeing falls as children get older: This fall is steepest between 13-14yrs and 16-17yrs. It is also steeper for girls than boys
  • Boys don’t cry—but girls report crying more as they get older: More than half girls say they ‘cry a lot’ by age 15 (53%). Only 14% boys by age 15 say the same
  • Children’s resilience is essential : Children’s resilience—‘the capacity to cope with stress and difficulties’—becomes more important with age, as the older they get the more closely it is associated with their overall wellbeing

→ Download That Awkward Age report

Here Dan Corry, NPC’s Chief Executive blogs on how this wellbeing measure can improve policy-making for teens.


 

Dan

National wellbeing isn’t about to reach the political status of GDP, but its importance to ministers and decision-makers has grown substantially in recent years.

It was a focus for the Coalition government (even if it faded from view as time went on), and ambitious projects have sprung up in the form of The What Works Centre for Wellbeing (of which I am a trustee) and think tank programmes at the New Economics Foundation (nef) and Nesta.

I am proud that NPC can add a new resource. In our report last month, That awkward age, we analysed data from our academically-validated, on-line tool that measures the wellbeing of young people. This easy to use tool has now been used by more than 100 schools and charities, in the process collecting anonymised information on over 8,000 children. The measure has been designed to help institutions gather clear evidence about the quality of their interventions, in the belief that only with stronger evidence can charities develop the most effective programmes to help the people with whom they work.

The measure also gives us a baseline from which we can compare the wellbeing of children at different ages between 10 and 17. Crucially it gives some insight, too, into what factors most affect wellbeing, from relationships with friends to trouble at school.

The broad findings in That awkward age aren’t necessarily that surprising, even if they are a little dispiriting.

While the majority of children report that they are happy, a sizeable chunk say they experience below average wellbeing (1 in 4 boys and 1 in 3 girls). The wellbeing of both boys and girls drops as they grow older, with a much steeper fall experienced by girls. The ‘crunch times’, at which well-being falls most sharply for both sexes, are between ages 13-14 and 16-17.

The factors which have the greatest impact on wellbeing are relations with family, a young person’s self-esteem, and their resilience (that is, their ability to bounce back from adversity).

Relations with friends are also very important, and this is where it is worth digging more deeply into the numbers. For most young people, there isn’t anything that dramatic here. The aggregate data shows that children grow less satisfied with their friends as they get older, but the fall isn’t that precipitous. Equally, while friendships become more important to their overall wellbeing as children get older, for most this is only by a bit.

But hidden away is a small group of teenage girls for whom broken friendships are disastrous. About 1 in 10 of the 15 year-olds who report falling out with friends also report low overall wellbeing. This isn’t a group who just go through a rocky patch: when they lose friends it coincides with a serious fall in how they feel about their lives.

This poses an interesting challenge to all policy makers and (NPC’s particular interest) to many charities. Resources are increasingly thin all round and especially in the voluntary sector, which will shoulder much of the burden for understanding and improving well-being. So tough decisions lie ahead. Should charities who care about wellbeing be working with all children across the board, or concentrating their efforts on the smaller groups who seem to be at greater risk of unhappiness? Should they intervene early on—with all the complexity that early intervention can entail—or focus on relieving problems now for teenagers who are already in distress?

The emergence of wellbeing as a measurable concept has many steps to go. There are still methodologies to be established, data sets to be built-up, hurdles to interpretation to be surmounted. But efforts to put in the right foundations is underway, and work we have undertaken at NPC shows how it opens up important new questions, gives new insights and poses new problems and opportunities for policy makers.

 

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