Field of Science

How are British kids doing these days?

British society, like that of most industrialized nations, has gone through enormous changes in recent decades. But it's hard to get objective data on what the impact has been on the people living there.

Which is why I was interested to see a recent study by Stephen Collishaw, of Cardiff University, and colleagues. They compared data from two studies, one in 1986 and one in 2006, that asked adolescents (aged 16-17) about their state of mind. Whether they felt anxious, depressed, worried, irritable, had disturbed sleep - things like that.

They found that kids in 2006 were more likely to report emotional problems than those in 1986. In particular, both boys and girls were more likely to say that they felt irritable, had disturbed sleep, and felt worn out or under strain. Their parents, too, were more likely to report similar problems.

Overall, the percentage saying they were frequently anxious or depressed has roughly doubled since 1986.

It's possible, of course, that kids today are simply more open about talking about admitting their feelings. That could be the case, although the authors point out that they did not see a general increase in all emotional problems. Instead, they found that some problems (irritable, disturbed sleep, worn out) increased, while others did not.

So, assuming that this is a real effect, what could be causing it? To investige, they looked at kids living with single parents compared with those living with step parents with step parents (see figure). They also looked at kids from disadvantaged homes compared with advantaged homes.

They found no consistent differences. The increase in emotional problems seems to be roughly the same across all social backgrounds. If anything, the greatest increase seems to be among girls with both natural parents and advantaged backgrounds.

Why could this be? It's very hard to say. Potentially, the higher levels of uncertainty of modern life, coupled with more fractured social networks. But this is just speculation.

What can be said is that while life has not got any harder for the children of divorced parents, it doesn't seem, on this evidence at least, to have got much easier - and that has got to be troubling, given the increasing numbers of children living in homes without both natural parents.

ResearchBlogging.orgCollishaw, S., Maughan, B., Natarajan, L., & Pickles, A. (2010). Trends in adolescent emotional problems in England: a comparison of two national cohorts twenty years apart Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 51 (8), 885-894 DOI: 10.1111/j.1469-7610.2010.02252.x

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.


  1. Were girls in advantaged, intact homes the least stressed in 1986? Maybe the baseline was lower?

    Are the differences between groups getting smaller maybe, even as the average rises slightly?

  2. Boys had fewer emotional problems than girls in all categories and at both time points. For girls, but not boys the differences between groups do seem to be getting smaller - although that could well just be random noise. The gap between girls and boys, though, seems to be growing. Which is the opposite of what I would have expected, but I can speculate on a few reasons why that might be.

  3. 16-17 was one of the most stressful times of my life (and it would've been in 2006 :p) My life jut seemed to be nothing but A-levels, uni applications, grants forms, work, stress and worry. Work pressure, social pressure, still just getting used to puberty and the emotional-adulthood thing (yeah I matured late) just made all that more stressful.

    Things were better at uni though :) And I'm finding the early twenties awesome, but I wouldn't want to live through my A-level years again.

  4. Weired finding. Isn't the personally felt unsecurity a significant contribution to the prevalence of religion in a society? If so, wouldn't these findings suggest that religiosity among teenagers should have increased in the last decades? Are the kids just better in selfawareness or are they simply more informed about their future?

  5. Yeah, that's why I thought it was interesting too. Teens have got a lot less religious over the last 2 decades. Has that made them more stressed? Or are they less stressed intrinsically, but also less religious, leading to an increase in stress overall? Or is something else entirely going on?

    My suspicion is that there are lots of factors leading to less religion in British Society, which means that kids no longer have the comfort that religion provides. Of course, that leads to opportunities, in terms of exposure to new ways of thinking, but it can also be unsettling. And, if things do go wrong in their lives, there is one less source of comfort to turn to.

  6. Hmm... Maybe it is a threshold thing. If your stress level is to high you turn to religion, which then reduces your stress to levels below the threshold. But if your stress level is just below the threshold you end up with a level that is higher than the stressed+religion person. Is that what you meant?

    Or: stress and personal insecurity are simply two different things. I vaguely remember that the feeling of personal security is strongly linked to the level of control over your life. Maybe the kids feel more in control and, thus, are less religious, but more stressed out about it...

  7. From what I remember of being a teenager (three years ago!) most of the stress that wasn't about exams (which seemed to happen continuously twice a year from age 12 upwards) was about puberty and sexuality.

    The belief that most of those thoughts were enough to send me to hell would probably not have helped the stress any. :p

    I totally blame the examinations system for increase in stress. Most of my teenage years seemed to involve continuous examinations and the corresponding worry about them.


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