How do multiple disadvantages affect children’s quality of life?

06 September 2017

Image: Larissa PopleLarissa Pople

The Children’s Society recently launched the latest edition of its annual Good Childhood Report, presenting the latest trends and insights into children’s subjective wellbeing. Our research programme, set up in 2005 in partnership with the University of York, examines how life is going from the perspective of children themselves across a range of wellbeing domains.

In this year’s report, we update our time series analysis of children’s subjective wellbeing with the latest available data, and consider different explanations for some of the gender patterns that have emerged in these trends over time. We also present new insights into how multiple experiences of disadvantage are linked to children’s wellbeing.

Time trends and gender patterns

In successive Good Childhood Reports, we have drawn on the latest available data from Understanding Society to present trends in children’s subjective wellbeing from 2009-10 onwards. The latest report shows that children’s happiness with their life as a whole and relationships with friends is at its lowest point since 2009-10, driven by a trend of girls becoming increasingly unhappy with these domains over time. There is also a long-standing gender difference in happiness with appearance that has been growing since 2002.

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Furthermore, as children get older, the gender gap for happiness with life as a whole and appearance widens.

Given that there is relatively little insight into the reasons for these gender patterns, we wanted to explore two possible explanations – social media usage and experiences of bullying.

We know that bullying is an important factor affecting children’s wellbeing and that there are gender differences in different types of bullying, with boys more likely to be physical bullied and girls more likely to experience relational bullying. However, in our analysis, these differences did not help to explain gender patterns in wellbeing.

For social media, the reverse was the case. We found high intensity social media use (more than four hours on a normal school day) to be associated with lower wellbeing for girls in particular, which goes some way to explain the gender differences in wellbeing. However, social media is less important as a factor in children’s wellbeing than bullying or family support.  

Multiple disadvantages

We asked 3,000 children aged 10 to 17 and their parents about a list of 27 disadvantages relating to family relationships as well as family/household, economic and neighbourhood circumstances. Some of the disadvantages that we asked about – such as worry about crime or struggling with bills – were relatively common while others – such as not having their own bed or having a family member in prison – affected a small minority of children.

According to our estimates, just under a million 10 to 17-year-olds are not facing any of these disadvantages. However, this is a small minority of children. A more widespread experience, affecting more than half of the population, is to have three or more disadvantages in their lives, with one million children facing seven or more disadvantages.

Individually, almost all of the disadvantages were linked with lower wellbeing. Struggling with bills was the factor that best explained differences in wellbeing across the whole sample, while children experiencing emotional neglect had the lowest average wellbeing.

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Importantly, these disadvantages had a cumulative effect. We found an incremental relationship between multiple disadvantage and children’s wellbeing: the greater the number of disadvantages that children face, the more likely they were to experience low wellbeing. Children facing seven or more disadvantages were ten times more likely to be unhappy with their lives than those with none.

The evidence outlined in this year’s Good Childhood Report points to the importance of early support for children to prevent the escalation of disadvantage. We are, therefore, calling on the Government to address the expected shortfall in funding for Children’s Services in the Autumn Budget, and urging local authorities to prioritise the wellbeing of children experiencing multiple disadvantage.

About the author

Larissa Pople is a Senior Researcher leading on the wellbeing research programme for The Children’s Society. This programme has generated a series of annual Good Childhood Reports and local area studies of wellbeing. She has also been involved in setting up a qualitative longitudinal study of poverty in partnership with the University of Bath.

Related resources

The Children’s Society (2017) The Good Childhood Report 2017. London: The Children’s Society. Available online: https://www.childrenssociety.org.uk/sites/default/files/the-good-childhood-report-2017_full-report.pdf

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