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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Patrick Butler Social policy editor

Childhoods have got worse in Britain, survey reveals

Children maintain social distancing measures while playing in a playground  in London during the pandemic
Children maintain social distancing measures while playing in a playground in London during the pandemic. Photograph: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

Childhoods have got worse in the UK, with the majority of adults believing children’s futures have been blighted by the Covid pandemic, declining levels of mental health and financial hardship, a survey has found.

More than half of parents and nearly two-thirds of grandparents believe life is more difficult and stressful now than when they were children, citing money issues, house prices, the climate crisis and emotional anxiety linked to school and social media, according to the charity Action for Children.

Although children overall are more likely to have a positive outlook, a third believe their parents enjoyed a better childhood than theirs. Many cite increasing worries around mental health, school stress and family finances, with those from poorer backgrounds much more likely to be pessimistic.

While 38% of children from low-income households (up to £20,000 a year) were more likely to say their childhoods were worse, this fell to 26% of children from households with an income of £70,000 or more. Similarly, 64% of poorer parents thought children’s lives were worse, compared with 48% from richer households.

Nearly half of children from low-income households are worried about family finances, for example, compared with 14% of children from wealthier families. Children from poorer families are far less confident they will get the job they want, and twice as likely to believe they will not get to university.

“We are all going through the experience of the pandemic and the cost of living crisis, but the difficulty is felt so much more intensively if you are on a low income,” said Imran Hussain, the director of policy and campaigns at Action for Children.

Although all children were worried about climate crisis, those from wealthier backgrounds were more likely to be concerned. More than half of children from wealthier families (56%) highlighted this, compared with 29% from low-income backgrounds.

Mental illness continued to register as a major worry for children, with 42% believing their own mental health to be an issue, compared with 29% when the question was asked in the previous Action for Children childhood survey in 2019.

Recognition by adults of childhood mental health as an issue has also accelerated, the survey found. In 2019, 17% of parents and 9% of grandparents recognised mental health as a concern. By 2021 this had increased to 45% of parents and 30% of grandparents.

Hussain said: “Despite the worst cost of living crisis since records began, the limited help for struggling families in last week’s spring statement was hugely disappointing. Our research shows how much children are concerned about ‘adult issues’, with those in the poorest households worrying the most about their family’s finances.”

He added: “It is the fundamental responsibility of any government to make sure every generation of children has a better childhood and a brighter future than the last, but day in, day out our frontline staff support families faced with making decisions about whether to put the heat on or put food on the table.”

The survey of 5,000 young people, parents and grandparents was carried out between December and January.

The Department for Education has been approached for comment.

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