Education & Family

Viewpoints: Despair among children and youngsters

depressed young girl Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption Are children and young people under more pressure?

Two major reports this new year have painted a bleak picture of children and young people's mental health. A study by the Prince's Trust suggested as many as three quarters of a million young people in the UK felt they had nothing to live for and ChildLine said it had seen a large increase in concerns about online bullying and self-harming.

So is life tougher for today's youth or are children's views just better heard these days?

Andrew Webb, President of the Association of Directors of Children's Services

The idea that "children should be seen and not heard" is thankfully, consigned to history. These days the thoughts, feelings and wishes of young people have become increasingly important and increasingly sought by professionals.

The introduction of a children's commissioner to promote the views and best interests of children was a milestone in the journey of listening to the child's voice. Local authorities have developed many innovative ways to ensure that the views and needs of children of all ages are taken into account when designing and delivering services to meet their needs.

We have learned our lessons from not listening to the experiences of the youngest in society.

We have learned that we must not only listen, but we must also hear what a child tells us, and act on their experiences to ensure we meet their individual needs.

Providing children with access to support when they need it is something local authorities must continue to work on, but children's wellbeing and happiness is not just the business of statutory services.

As a society we need to continue to encourage the development of responses in ways which are relevant to children and young people, and that provide positive messages and support.

Times have changed and childhood is not the same as it was, but rather than hanker for times past, we must help our children adapt to being children in modern times. We must instil in them a sense of confidence and adventure, of trust and independence while addressing issues surrounding the increased early sexualisation of youngsters, the pervasive nature of modern technology and the challenges that both online and offline bullying bring.

Only if we get the balance right will we begin to see the happiness and wellbeing of our children improve.

Christian Guy, Director of the Centre for Social Justice

The majority of people look back on their childhoods with fondness.

But there is little doubt that children and young people live under some intense pressures today. Whether it is a rampant culture of materialism, exams, bullying or the internet, many feel vulnerable under the strain.

Some of these have been challenges for generations, while others - such as texting and online access - are in their infancy.

And another pressure, often hidden behind Britain's front doors, has been the explosion of family breakdown.

This can have a detrimental impact on children - they tend to do worse at school and are more likely to live in poverty as a result of instability at home.

Supporting families and the professionals around them is the best place to start in the quest for better childhoods.

Getting it right for parents and children builds resilience and protects against the inevitable rollercoaster that is our early years.

Philip Treleven, Operations Director at The Duke of Edinburgh's Award

Following their education, young people should be able to readily establish themselves as young adults and lay the foundations for a productive and satisfying life; namely, through gaining employment and engaging in activities that give a sense of achievement, fulfilment and enjoyment.

Unemployment undermines this and, while there are a large number advancing down their chosen career and life paths, young people excluded from reaching their potential can experience a negative impact on their physical and mental well-being.

The statistics appear to tell us that youth unemployment has increased. However, instead of debating whether things are better or worse, the focus should be on the fact that youth unemployment exists and is a tragedy for the individuals affected.

Dr Mary Bousted, General Secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers

Life has improved tremendously for young people in the UK since World War One. They have better nutrition, better health, they are all entitled to free education to the age of 18, they are listened to and have far greater opportunities and options in life.

However, today's young people are under a great deal of pressure from parents and schools to do well and achieve high exam results. Many worry about getting the grades to go to university, and/or finding a job which is proving difficult even for graduates.

Many fear they will be saddled with student debt for life and will never be able to buy their own home. Many children lead constrained lives, ferried everywhere and not allowed out on their own by parents worried about drugs, alcohol, gangs, and traffic. And many children are worried about fitting in and being accepted by their peers - with pressure from social media causing problems.

Parents can help by allowing children more freedom, with support when they need it. Government can and should do more by recognising that all children are different, encouraging a better balance between vocational and academic subjects, and ending the excessive emphasis on testing.

It should also provide more support for disadvantaged families so they can better support their children, and help children to stay in education past 16. It should reverse cuts to funding for education for those over 16, provide better careers guidance and do more to promote good quality apprenticeships.

Enver Soloman, Director of Evidence and Impact at the National Children's Bureau

The latest data on well-being from Unicef, which compares a number of different countries, suggests children and young people in this country say their well-being is not too bad - but that pre-dates the onset of the recession.

For children generally, there are greater pressures to growing up today that are different than in previous times - whether it is issues related to social media and the dynamics of bullying, for example, which have changed.

It used to take place in the school environment, now it can take place anywhere if the child has a mobile phone or tablet.

For children experiencing poverty, the expectation is that the number will rise from 3.5 million in 2013 to 4.1 million in 2015. By 2020 it will have risen to over 4.7 million by 2020.

So we know that over the next six years the number of children in poverty will increase by over one million. Inevitably this will mean hardship for a large number of children.

We know from research that when children are living in homes where there is a financial shock - someone leaving their job or the impact of separation - it does have an impact on what children say about how they feel about life.

And issues of mental illness, particularly among teenage boys, are greater than 10 to 15 years ago. But if we look at all children as a whole I don't think we can say life is worse for all of them.

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