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Vol.22, No.11, November 2006 - What makes a good childhood: results of a UK national survey

What makes a good life for children and adolescents? A national survey carried out in the United Kingdom sought to answer this question by polling thousands of young people living in England.

The survey was launched amid growing concern that pressures of modern life may be contributing to increased mental health problems among children in the UK. Writing in the Daily Telegraph, one group of teachers and psychiatrists believe that computers, advertising, and "overly academic test driven" primary schools might be responsible for the increasing incidence of behavioral problems and depression among children.

"There is clearly a mood in the UK that as a society we have got some important things wrong about childhood," says Bob Reitemeier, chief executive of The Children's Society, which carried out the survey in partnership with the University of York.

Some of the themes that emerged from the participants' responses were the quality of their interpersonal relationships, particularly with the family; worries about school exams or school work; personal safety at home, school and in the community; and being allowed freedom in what they think, speak and do.

Some themes were conspicuous by their absence such as technology, which might reflect the fact that young people take technology for granted or, at a more fundamental level, that technology does not have an impact on the quality of their everyday life. Other topics which were scarcely mentioned by the respondents were those of a national or global political nature, as well as issues which had a spiritual dimension.

The survey, polled over 11,000 adolescents, 14 to 16 years of age, in a representative sample of 16 areas of England during 2005. There were two open-ended questions on the final page of the survey questionnaire: "What do you think are the most important things that make a good life for young people?" and "What things do you think stop young people from having a good life?"

The research team carried out a detailed qualitative thematic analysis of a random 50% sample of the survey data set, as well as a content analysis of word frequencies found in the responses. The following summary represents an overview of some of the participants'-comments.

Family was considered the most important and most commonly mentioned topic. Approximately 93% of the respondents felt their parents or caregivers cared about them, while a smaller proportion (63%) indicated that their parents or caregivers understood them. Having friends was the second most important topic, mentioned mostly in a positive sense such as providing support through friendship.

Leisure was the third most important "quality of life" ingredient, mentioned in a number of different contexts (e.g., having something to do, having nothing to do, something that is relaxing, sports-related, having sex, belonging to clubs, having hobbies, listening to music, going to the cinema, shopping, socializing, and being bored). Approximately 60% of the respondents agreed with the statement "I often hang about with my friends doing nothing in particular." Safety was also considered important to young people in terms of having places to go which are not dangerous.

Having a good quality education was considered to be one of the key factors in having a good childhood. Although "education" was often mentioned in a positive context, "school" was sometimes considered a hindrance to having a good life through the negative impact of stress from exams or having too much homework.

Many respondents recognized that their own behavior contributed greatly to how they experienced their childhood. Substance use was often mentioned as an aspect of behavior that prevented young people from having a good life, particularly with regard to use of drugs and alcohol. However, a minority of respondents, identified substance use as a contributor to a good life (e.g., having a good smoke). Another broad category of comment regarding negative behavior preventing a good life was involvement in crime.

Sub-themes that emerged during the analysis were love (particularly its importance in terms of family life); support (most notably from family, friends, and school); fairness (perceived as a key relationship issue with regard to being treated fairly by others as well as its negative aspects involving prejudice, discrimination, bullying); respect (closely related to the issue of fairness; importance of mutual respect); and safety, security and protection (e.g., fear of crime and the impact of drugs were 2 key themes that emerged as well as gangs and adults who were perceived as a threat).

To extend the scope of the current survey, The Children's Society has called for a national inquiry panel to provide evidence from children, adolescents, professionals working with young people, and the general public, on what they think makes for a good childhood today in the UK.

Cole A: Inquiry opens into state of childhood in the UK. BMJ 2006; DOI:10.1136/bmj.333.7569.619 333(7569):619. The full report may be downloaded from The Children's Society website at www.goodchildhood.org.uk.

The Brown University Child and Adolescent Behavior Letter, November 2006
Reproduced with permission of John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
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