Next time your 13-year-old daughter or son sulks when you refuse them money for new clothes or the latest mobile phone, rest assured it really is for their own good. What makes teenagers happy, according to research, are the simple things in life.
Close friends, playing sport and a stable home life are more important to the happiness of children aged 10 to 15 than the wealth of their parents, according to a study by the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Essex, southeast England.
Other factors that increase a child’s sense of well-being include a healthy lifestyle, a sense of community and good behavior from their classmates during lessons.
Researcher Gundi Knies found no difference in the average life satisfaction score of children in families with lower incomes compared with those living in families with higher incomes.
Access to the Internet for up to one hour a day boosts contentment, but excessive time spent on social media is an attribute of an unhappy child.
“Children need to have access to the Internet like their friends, but when it exceeds an hour per day it prevents them from engaging in other social activities that would make them happier,” Knies said.
Children who have friends over for tea once a fortnight and those who go swimming once a month are more likely to be happy. Factors indirectly connected to wealth also played a part in happiness. Children who have their own bedroom, bike or other leisure equipment are also happier.
Diet, which can also be linked to wealth, also plays an important role. Children who have fewer than five portions of fruit and vegetables a day or who eat fast food most days tend to be less happy.
Girls make up both the happiest and least happy groups of children. Girls aged between 10 and 12 are the happiest, while those aged 12 to 15 are the least happy.
“Older girls are unhappier because they are going through puberty and their parents become more protective, and girls become very conscious of the way they look and they way they are treated,” Knies said. “In general, boys don’t face the same pressures.”
The study was based on 5,000 children from families with an average monthly income of ￡1,144. Families from the wealthiest 1 percent in the UK were not included in the study.
Levels of poverty in Britain tend to be higher than in countries with a comparable wealth. A recent study found Britain was fifth in a European league table for child poverty, behind Italy, Latvia, Bulgaria and Romania, although the UK’s Department for Work and Pensions reports that child poverty rates have halved in the past 12 years.
At the instigation of British Prime Minister David Cameron, the Office of National Statistics compiles a happiness index to complement other measures, such as gross domestic product, to get a picture of life in the UK, but it surveys adults and teenagers over 16.
“There is a lot of work done about the happiness of adults and there is a strong correlation between wealth and well-being. The major difference with children is that they do not earn their own money and normally parents do not tell them how much they earn. Children can judge wealth by the amount of food there is at home and by comparing standards to the homes of other children,” Knies said. “I found it interesting that children value similar things to their parents, a stable setting and participation in society. The findings of this report suggest it is very important to ensure that children have lots of opportunity for social contact. This could mean keeping youth clubs open; ensuring access to local amenities and sports clubs is as effective in ensuring the well-being of children as money transfers.”
Elaine Hindal of the Children’s Society said that, while much of the University of Essex report mirrors its findings, the importance of family income to the well-being of children should not be underplayed.
“Children from the poorest 20 percent of households in England have much lower well-being than average,” she said. “And children who are aware of a recent decline in family income are likely to have lower well-being, something policymakers should take into account at a time of decreased job security and changes to the benefit system.”
“What’s interesting is why children value money — not for its own sake, but for the opportunities it gives to enjoy leisure time with family and friends, to afford activities, holidays and other opportunities for cementing social and emotional bonds. And possessions matter too, but again, not for their own sake. For most children, having ‘enough’ money is about being able to have the things and do the things that help them take part and fit in with peers,” Hindal added.