Girls’ emotional wellbeing drops markedly more than male peers’ during their teenage years, according to a report published today (27 January) by the Education Policy Institute (EPI) and the Prince’s Trust.
The report is based on data from the Millennium Cohort Study – examining the personal experiences of young people in England, at age 11, 14 and 17 – and supplemented by focus group responses from November 2020.
Among the key findings is that, by the end of primary school, Generation Z girls have similar levels of self-esteem to boys, but then experience a sharp decline by age 14.
The proportion of girls unhappy with their appearance rises steeply between the ages of 11 and 14, from one in seven to approximately one in three.
Depressive symptoms rise again between the ages of 14 and 17, for both boys and girls, but increase more markedly for the latter.
While there may be nothing new in teenhood often being a difficult age to navigate, today’s adolescents – the first generation of digital natives – have specific difficulties to deal with.
For example, the report finds that frequent use of social media has an adverse effect on the wellbeing of boys and girls, along with the self-esteem of girls.
“While girls tended to focus on the negative impact on body image, boys felt that the images they saw on social media platforms could be aspirational,” it says.
Supporting young people’s mental health will only become more crucial as the impact of the pandemic unfolds – Whitney Crenna-Jennings, report author
The pandemic is another unique issue that Generation Z have had to confront. While frequent physical exercise plays a positive role in young people’s wellbeing, participation in activities and sports is expected to have fallen considerably due to school closures and lockdowns.
Moreover, there are fears that school closures and the commensurate rise in a sense of isolation risks causing long-term damage to the wellbeing of hundreds of thousands of young people.
Researchers say that the experience of the pandemic is likely to continue to exacerbate existing mental health and wellbeing problems among young people, with national estimates showing that one in six young people now have a probable mental illness, up from one in nine.
“Young people already face significant challenges at this stage in their lives, but this generation have also had to deal with a pandemic that will have starved them of the vital relationships and experiences needed to support their journey through adolescence,” said Whitney Crenna-Jennings, senior researcher at the EPI and author of the report, ‘Young people’s mental and emotional health – trajectories and drivers in childhood and adolescence’.
“The government has provided extra academic support for pupils but there is now a compelling case for it to consider emergency funding to support young people’s mental health and wellbeing. If we fail to counter the ill-effects of this crisis on young people’s health and development, there is a real risk that it inflicts irreversible damage on their later life chances.”
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Among the other factors found to contribute to lower levels of wellbeing and self-esteem in young people are:
- Coming from a low-income background
- Being bullied
- Frequently arguing with parents
- Being placed in the bottom stream in primary school
- Poor maternal health
- Feeling unsafe in the local neighbourhood
“The decline in young people’s wellbeing and self-esteem as they go into their mid-late teens shows the need for early intervention and ongoing support to prevent future harm and potential mental health crises,” said Jonathan Townsend, UK chief executive of the Prince’s Trust.
“At the Prince’s Trust we see the damage poor mental health can have on a young person, impacting their education, subsequent employment and overall life chances. It is only by working together, and quickly, that we can prevent scarring this generation’s future.”
To that end, based on both its research and fears of the pandemic leading to a further deterioration in young people’s mental health, EPI has made a series of policy recommendations for the government. These include:
- Urgently introducing a £650m funding package to support children and young people’s wellbeing, such as hiring additional staff to deliver mental health support to pupils and making interventions to address socio-emotional skills gaps
- Building on existing mental health content in the curriculum to reflect contemporary evidence
- Improving the capacity of school staff to support children with mental health needs
- Developing an evidence-based policy to prevent and tackle bullying
- Publishing a plan for rollout of a maximum four-week waiting time for specialist mental healthcare across the country
- Improving young people’s access to resources and areas for physical activity
- Increasing funding to local mental health providers to allow them to better identify and support children with needs which do not meet diagnostic thresholds
- Developing a cross-government and cross-sector strategy to reduce family poverty and ensure young people feel safe in their communities
“The transition from childhood to adolescence can be turbulent,” added Crenna-Jennings. “The findings of this report underline why addressing and supporting young people’s mental health will only become more crucial as the impact of the pandemic unfolds.”
Read the full report here.