British society, like that of most industrialized nations, has gone through enormous changes in recent decades. But it’s hard to get objective data on what the impact has been on the people living there.
Which is why I was interested to see a recent study by Stephen Collishaw, of Cardiff University, and colleagues. They compared data from two studies, one in 1986 and one in 2006, that asked adolescents (aged 16-17) about their state of mind. Whether they felt anxious, depressed, worried, irritable, had disturbed sleep – things like that.
They found that kids in 2006 were more likely to report emotional problems than those in 1986. In particular, both boys and girls were more likely to say that they felt irritable, had disturbed sleep, and felt worn out or under strain. Their parents, too, were more likely to report similar problems.
Overall, the percentage saying they were frequently anxious or depressed has roughly doubled since 1986.
It’s possible, of course, that kids today are simply more open about talking about admitting their feelings. That could be the case, although the authors point out that they did not see a general increase in all emotional problems. Instead, they found that some problems (irritable, disturbed sleep, worn out) increased, while others did not.
So, assuming that this is a real effect, what could be causing it? To investige, they looked at kids living with single parents compared with those living with step parents with step parents (see figure). They also looked at kids from disadvantaged homes compared with advantaged homes.
They found no consistent differences. The increase in emotional problems seems to be roughly the same across all social backgrounds. If anything, the greatest increase seems to be among girls with both natural parents and advantaged backgrounds.
Why could this be? It’s very hard to say. Potentially, the higher levels of uncertainty of modern life, coupled with more fractured social networks. But this is just speculation.
What can be said is that while life has not got any harder for the children of divorced parents, it doesn’t seem, on this evidence at least, to have got much easier – and that has got to be troubling, given the increasing numbers of children living in homes without both natural parents.
Collishaw, S., Maughan, B., Natarajan, L., & Pickles, A. (2010). Trends in adolescent emotional problems in England: a comparison of two national cohorts twenty years apart Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 51 (8), 885-894 DOI: 10.1111/j.1469-7610.2010.02252.x