ONE in six 14-year-olds in the UK are self-harming, most of whom have symptoms of depression, new analysis from the Children’s Society suggests.
In its seventh annual Good Childhood Report, released on Wednesday, the charity analysed the latest results of the millennium-cohort survey of more than 11,000 children aged ten to 17. This included the question whether the respondents had hurt themselves on purpose when they were 14 years old, or in any way in the past year.
More than 1700 children (15.5 per cent) said that they had self-harmed in the past year. Most (1237) were girls, that is, almost a quarter (one in four) of all girls surveyed; this was compared with 9.2 per cent of boys.
One respondent said: “I felt like self-harming was what I wanted to do, and had to do, as there was nothing else I could do. I think there is help for young people but not the right kind of help. Feeling not pretty enough or good enough as other girls did contribute towards my self-harming; however, I don’t feel just being a girl is the reason as I think boys feel the same way too.”
The Office for National Statistics estimates that there are 707,888 14-year-olds in the UK (361,698 boys; 346,190 girls). The report therefore estimates that about 110,000 14-year-olds in the UK may have self-harmed in the past year — of which more than a quarter are boys.
The Bishop of Gloucester, the Rt Revd Rachel Treweek, who has been campaigning to counter anxiety among young people by challenging the “lie that who you are is how you look” (Comment, 5 May 2017), said: “It is shocking that so many children are unhappy to the extent that they are self-harming.
“The issues raised around children unhappy with their appearance and lack of self-esteem resonate with my own engagement with young people. . . The misleading message about human worth being rooted in visual appearance is perpetuated by advertising and social media.
“A focus on building and strengthening healthy relationships with family and friends is core to changing this message.”
The researchers from the University of York also collected data from other surveys to inform the Good Childhood report, including the British Household Panel Survey with Understanding Society.
In the 20 years to 2016, the report says, there was a significant increase in happiness with family, school, and schoolwork; but there was no significant change in happiness with life generally, friends, or appearance.
“Children’s happiness with their lives had risen steadily in the 15 years from 1995 to 2010,” the chief executive of the Children’s Society, Matthew Reed, said in his foreword. “But this progress has now been reversed, and children’s well-being is now as low as it was two decades ago.”
The results were “deeply worrying” — not simply because of low self-esteem linked to body image. “The 2018 report identifies other disparities: for example, girls are unhappier with their lives, more likely to have depression, and twice as likely to self-harm as boys. And, shockingly, children attracted to the same or both genders have markedly lower well-being and higher rates of depression than other children.”
Of the 620 children surveyed who said that they had been attracted to people of the same gender or both genders, nearly half (46 per cent) said that they had self-harmed; 38 per cent showed signs of depression; and a third had low well-being. This was compared with 11 per cent of children overall.
Of the children who had self-harmed in the past year, 61 per cent had “high depressive symptoms” and 32 per cent had high emotional or behavioural difficulties. Children from lower-income backgrounds (37 per cent of children who self-harmed in the past year) were more likely to self-harm than those from the higher-income backgrounds (26 per cent).
Asked about their experience of school, about a quarter of respondents (24 per cent) said that they had frequently heard jokes or comments about appearance, and more than a fifth (22 per cent) of children in secondary school said that jokes or comments were often made about sexual activity. Generally, girls felt unhappier because of this behaviour — but not boys.
Children could also be harmed by negative expectations of gender stereotypes, the report says. It suggests that healthy family relationships could protect children because this had the biggest positive influence on the well-being of children overall.
“Issues like appearance, gender stereotypes, and sexuality should be included in the new Relationships and Sex Education curriculum,” Mr Reed said.
“However, early support for vulnerable children and families in the community, which can help prevent mental-health problems from developing, is also vital, and ministers must urgently address the £2-billion funding-shortfall facing council children’s services departments by 2020.”