Healthy in body, not in mind? Life as a 21st-century child

23rd October 2015 at 00:00
More than a quarter fear being bullied at school, survey shows

They don’t drink much, smoke much or take drugs. But they have low self-esteem, are afraid of bullies and worry more about the pressures of schoolwork than anything else.

These are the children of 2015, according to an extensive survey of thousands of pupils around the country.

Academics at the Schools and Students Health Education Unit delivered a detailed questionnaire to more than 78,000 primary and secondary pupils between the ages of 10 and 15. The aim was to find out what today’s children do at school, at home and with their friends.

For many, bullying is a significant fear. More than a third of Year 6 girls and Year 8 girls – 34 per cent and 36 per cent respectively – say it means they are sometimes or often afraid of going to school. Boys are also scared of bullies, with 23 per cent of Year 6 and Year 8 boys afraid of going to school.

More positively, many of today’s pupils live very healthily. Two-thirds of 10- to 11-year-old girls think they are either fit or very fit, although this falls to a quarter by the time they reach 14-15.

Around 97 per cent of 10- to 11-year-olds say they have never smoked, compared with 92 per cent five years ago. By the ages of 14 and 15, 71 per cent of boys say they have still never tried a cigarette, while 66 per cent of girls have also never smoked. This figure has been rising continuously since the 1990s.

And few children are taking illegal drugs: 12 per cent of 14- and 15-year-olds report having taken cannabis.

Does social media lower self-esteem?

However, many pupils are spending large amounts of time on social media, often with adverse effects. The more time teenagers spend on these websites, the more likely they are to have low self-esteem, and to smoke, drink and eat unhealthily, the research finds. Only a third of teenagers who spend less than an hour per evening on social media are likely to suffer from low self-esteem, compared with half of those who devote more than three hours an evening to such websites.

David Regis, who conducted the survey, points out that it is difficult to establish what links use of social media and low self-esteem. “Youngsters are under pressure to perform and be visible online,” he tells TES. “So it may be that social media is making them feel bad.

“But it may be that, when you’re feeling bad, you go online and talk to your friends and try to feel better about yourself.”

Anxiety about schoolwork

The biggest worries among 14- to 15-year-old boys are schoolwork, family problems and the way they look. The biggest concerns among girls of the same age are schoolwork and the way they look. Dr Regis says that, previously, he was always able to tell the difference between boys’ and girls’ questionnaires by looking at their greatest concerns: girls tended to be worried about friendships and their appearance.

“Now, you can’t tell the difference,” he says. “They’re both worried about schoolwork. Youngsters are starting to feel anxiety about performing at school – tests and Sats and the risk of it all. Teachers are under such enormous pressure to show progress at an individual level, pupil by pupil and week by week. So I’m not surprised youngsters are worrying more about it.

“A little anxiety is probably good for you, to get you to perk up and be conscientious. But too much anxiety interferes with your way of life.”

This anxiety emerges in different ways, he says. For example, 64 per cent of 14- to 15-year-old girls, 51 per cent of 12- to 13-year-old girls and 31 per cent of 10- to 11-year-old girls say they would like to lose weight.

And 14 per cent of Year 10 girls had nothing at all to eat or drink for breakfast on the day of the survey. Eighteen per cent had eaten nothing for lunch the previous day.

However, Dr Regis questions to what extent these figures are linked. “There are youngsters who aren’t worried about their weight, and they do skip meals,” he says. “Lots of boys who aren’t worried about losing weight miss meals as well.”

He recommends that schools should employ members of staff whose job it is to simply look after pupils’ emotional needs.

“A lot of these youngsters are in a certain amount of turmoil,” he says. “They seem to have very little emotional resilience: they’re vulnerable to serious mental-health consequences of being that unhappy for that long. They need reassurance, confidence, hope.”

Generation 2015: the key behaviours

Among 10- to 11-year-olds, 27 per cent say they eat five or more portions of fruit and vegetables a day. The figure for 14- to 15-year-olds is 16 per cent.

Around 46 per cent of children aged 12-15 walk some of the way to school.

The majority of pupils sleep for eight or nine hours a night. But 19 per cent of Year 8 girls sleep between six and seven hours a night, compared with 34 per cent of Year 10 girls.

About 14 per cent of Year 10 pupils watch more than three hours of television every evening, compared with 17 per cent who watch none at all.

Smoking levels are falling, with 71 per cent of 14- to 15-year-old boys saying they have never tried a cigarette and 66 per cent of girls. In 2010, 53 per cent of Year 10 girls and 59 per cent of Year 10 boys had never smoked.

Among Year 10 pupils, 15 per cent reported having drunk some alcohol in the week leading up to the survey. Four per cent said they drank 28 or more units in a week.

Around 91 per cent of 10- to 15-year-olds said they had exercised on at least one day in the week of the survey.

A total of 64 per cent of 14- to 15-year-old girls want to continue with full-time education after Year 11, compared with 49 per cent of boys the same age.

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