Someone at the Department for Education has a sense of humour - it is surely ironic that the latest edition of its research into the wellbeing of young people (“LYSPE2”) was published in the short gap between A level results last week and GCSE results this week. One might think that little can have done more to promote ill-health in teenagers than changes in exam qualifications, and yet actually the picture painted is both more complex and more encouraging than this.
Let’s celebrate, first, the good news. Young people are more likely to equate hard work with success, they are less likely to be engaged in risky behaviours (such as alcohol, drugs, and anti-social behaviour) and they are less likely to be bullied. All of these are welcome, and deserve celebration. On average this is a more serious, and more positive, generation.
However, below the surface there might be less to celebrate. Teenagers feel less in control of their lives, and more under pressure. Where pressure (especially from parents, it seems) overlaps with their feeling unable to influence outcomes for themselves, there is rising psychological distress. Very unusually, this ill-health is more pronounced among those whose life chances are better, either because they are more affluent or because their parents have greater educational qualifications. And it’s very unusual for better life chances to be associated with poorer health.
Tantalisingly, the report hints that teenagers are engaged in fewer risky behaviours because life itself seems like a bigger risk. The financial crisis, the increase in youth unemployment, and the rise in student debt all weigh heavily on this generation. They take life more seriously because it demands it – their world seems a riskier place than those of us who grew up in the last millennium at least.
In addition, they face hazards which are outside their locus of control, like unemployment – and possibly even Brexit, which the youngest overwhelmingly voted against, where they could vote at all.
Surprisingly, this study does not examine the effect of social media and the smartphone on these 14-15 year olds, but it does note teenagers have acquired smartphones during the 11 years since the last major study.
The big picture is that the young are not degenerate, or feckless, or wilfully idle. They are coping with the problems their parents have left them, as previous generations have had to. They deserve our sympathy, and our help. That help should include more research on how technology is helping, or hindering, them.