The Good Childhood Report: Does gender affect happiness?

12 November 2018

Larissa PopleLarissa Pople

The Children’s Society recently published The Good Childhood Report 2018, the seventh in a series of annual reports on children’s self-reported well-being that it produces in partnership with the University of York.

In addition to presenting the latest statistics and trends over time, this year’s report drew extensively on the Millennium Cohort Study to offer new insights into gender differences in well-being, and explore how different measures of well-being and mental ill-health relate to behaviours such as self-harm.

Gender patterns

There are some notable differences between boys' and girls' well-being in the UK. At the age of 14, for example, girls are less happy than boys with every aspect of life measured by the Millennium Cohort Study: life as a whole, family, friends, school, schoolwork and, most strikingly, appearance (the gap in boys’ and girls’ happiness with appearance was 1.5 points on a 10-point scale).

In last year's Good Childhood Report, we looked at whether social media and bullying could help explain these differences. Our research has consistently highlighted the importance of bullying for children’s wellbeing, but it did not help to explain the gender patterns that we see for wellbeing. On the other hand, we found high intensity social media usage to be more important for girls’ wellbeing than for boys’, but only a partial explanation for gender differences.

In this year’s report, we wanted to explore other factors that might play a role. An interesting picture emerged as to different factors that are more or less important for girls’ and boys’ wellbeing. Time spent with friends was found to be more important for boys’ well-being, while factors in children’s family relationships - such as how close children feel to parents and how often they argue with them - were found to be more important for girls’ well-being. Seeing friends at the weekend and closeness to mother are shown below to illustrate the different patterns that we found.

Millennium Cohort Study, Wave 6, 2015

Millennium Cohort Study, Wave 6, 2015

Using our own household survey of children’s well-being, we also found children’s exposure to comments at school about appearance and sexual activity to be more important for girls’ wellbeing than boys’.

The Children’s Society’s household survey, May/June 2018

The Children’s Society’s household survey, May/June 2018

Other findings in this year’s report contribute to a growing weight of evidence showing that children are living in environments that are highly gendered, with children aware of different expectations for boys and girls from a young age.

Children’s well-being, mental health and self-harm

This year’s report also highlighted high rates of self-harm for some 14-year-olds. Twice as many girls (22%) as boys (9%), and almost half of children who had been attracted to the same or both genders (46%) had self-harmed in the previous year.

Millennium Cohort Study, Wave 6, 2015

Furthermore, we found the two child-report measures of depression and well-being to be stronger predictors of self-harm than the parent-report measure of emotional and behavioural difficulties.

Millennium Cohort Study, Wave 6, 2015

It is striking that a single-item measure of wellbeing is a stronger predictor of self-harm than a 20-item measure of emotional and behavioural difficulties. This finding adds weight to our long-held belief that data from children must be considered the gold standard.  

The key findings outlined in this year’s report point to a need for society as a whole to do more to make sure every child feels happy and included – at home, in school and in our communities. In terms of policy change, we are calling for every child to have access to a counsellor in their school if they need one, and for there to be a whole-school approach to mental health and well-being that creates an inclusive environment for everyone regardless of sexuality, disability, ethnicity, poor mental or physical health, and low income.

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.

Related resources 

Millenium Cohort Study

The Children's Society

Related RiP blogs

The Good Childhood Report 2016 - How happy are children with different aspects of their lives?

The Good Childhood Report 2017- How do multiple disadvantages affect children’s quality of life?


The Children’s Society (2018) The Good Childhood Report 2018. London: The Children’s Society. Available online: https://www.childrenssociety.org.uk/sites/default/files/the_good_childhood_report_full_2018.pdf

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