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World Happiness: how are children and young people?

The World Happiness Report 2024 has found that life satisfaction gradually drops from childhood through adolescence into adulthood. In this blogpost, Professor Gary Pollock discusses his research into child wellbeing, and the policy interventions required to improve it.

The World Happiness Report 2024 is the first in its series to include a substantial chapter about child and adolescent wellbeing.

This evidence based report emphasises the importance of high quality data in helping us to understand what the experiences are and how policy interventions can make improvements. Of particular interest is the international dimension which inevitably result in country comparisons and questions about why it is that children are happier in one country compared to another.

One of the key findings is that life satisfaction gradually drops from childhood through adolescence into adulthood, but that this is not uniformly experienced across the world. Why is this? The results are not entirely clear but there are country, gender, and regional differences that suggest that policy responses should have a role in improving levels of life satisfaction.

The report also identifies data gaps – areas where there is a need for data to improve our understanding of child wellbeing.  A key message here is that there is indeed a significant gap: currently there is not an international harmonised longitudinal survey of child wellbeing.  This is an important lack because wellbeing is not static and knowing about wellbeing at one point in time is useful but does not help us work out what factors might help to make improvements.  That life satisfaction appears to reduce with age, means that longitudinal data is best placed to help us to understand why and therefore develop ideas as to how we can change things.

Addressing the longitudinal data gap

This is something that we have been working on for some years through a series of EU funded projects in the Policy Evaluation and Research Unit (PERU).  The European Commission, back in 2013 asked if it was desirable and feasible to have a comparative longitudinal study of child wellbeing.  The MYWEB project answered in the affirmative on both counts. This was the start of what is now known as Growing Up in Digital Europe, or GUIDE for short. GUIDE will, from 2027 onwards provide harmonised data on a cohort of European 8 year old children and will follow them until they are aged 24.  Never before has there been a survey such as this and it will doubtless feature in future international analyses of child wellbeing.

We are really pleased that the World Happiness Report has mentioned GUIDE and pointed to its future importance in the data landscape. Similarly the OECD has recently suggested that the GUIDE study has the potential to make a significant contribution to child wellbeing policy making.

What will GUIDE help us understand?

GUIDE has a focus on the policy relevance of existing and emerging research questions in a variety of fields including health, education/pedagogy, child development, family studies, parenting, transition from school to work, family formation and fertility, demography, culture, leisure, digital society.  In particular the data will be used to address:

  • Subjective wellbeing, mental health and psychological wellbeing

  • Parental support, parenting strategies parental stress and childcare

  • School experiences, aspirations, learning difficulties, bullying

  • Cognitive, social and emotional development

  • Activities, play, use of electronic devices, parental restrictions

  • Social and environmental influences on child wellbeing

  • Housing and neighbourhood conditions and services

  • Child safety and perceptions of rights

  • Family and household structure, conditions of child upbringing

  • Family health and nutrition and lifestyle

  • Social and demographic inequalities and diversity of experiences

What has GUIDE done so far?

GUIDE is at a crucial stage in its development with a planned first wave of data collection in 2027.  In 2021 GUIDE was included on the European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructures Roadmap.  This places GUIDE alongside other scientific infrastructures such as the Large Hadron Collider at CERN.  In 2023 we successfully piloted the GUIDE questionnaires in Croatia, Finland, France, Ireland, and Slovenia as part of project COORDINATE. An Italian pilot will take place in 2024, and we hope a UK one will follow. The first GUIDE conference took place in 2023 at Innocenti in Florence, where the UNICEF research office is based. UNICEF have been closely involved with the development of GUIDE since the days of the MYWEB project and have consistently asserted the value of our work.

GUIDE’s scientific partners across Europe are working hard to achieve the national funding necessary to collect data in their countries. We hope that the growing recognition of the importance of harmonised longitudinal data focussing on child wellbeing by OECD, UNICEF and the World Happiness Report will help funders and policy makers in continuing to invest in GUIDE.


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