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How do children around the world feel about their lives?

Posted on 16 February 2016

A major international study, which involved researchers from the University of York, has provided a fresh perspective on how children around the world feel about their lives.

The Children’s Worlds study, co-ordinated in England by the Social Policy Research Unit (SPRU) at York, asked children about all key aspects of their lives including their family and home life, friendships, money and possessions, school life, local area, time use, personal well-being, views on children’s rights, and their overall happiness.

Most children aged eight in all 16 countries were happy with their lives as a whole but a minority (around 6 per cent of children) had low well-being. The percentage with low well-being varied from below 3 per cent in Colombia and Romania to over 9 per cent in Ethiopia, South Korea and England.

England ranks no higher than eighth out of 16 countries for any of the survey’s happiness measures. However, the report identifies, in relative terms, the most positive and negative aspects of life within each country. The three aspects with the most positive relative scores in England were happiness with people lived with (i.e. usually family), health and safety.

Simon Sommer, Head of Research at the Jacobs Foundation which funded the work, said: “This project is groundbreaking. This report presents, for the first time, 8-year-old children’s own perspectives on their lives and well-being. The Jacobs Foundation continues to support “Children’s Worlds”, because we are convinced that it will deliver unique information valuable for everyone who is interested in understanding and improving the lives of children and youth.”

Some of the key findings from the report are:

Worried about money

Over a third of the children surveyed said that they ‘often’ or ‘always’ worried about how much money their family has. The levels of worry were highest (over 30 per cent of children saying that they ‘always’ worried) in Israel, Colombia, Spain and Nepal. In South Korea and Germany the figure was less than 10 per cent.


Most children in the survey said that they felt totally safe at home, at school and in their neighbourhood. However 4 per cent of children did not agree at all that they felt safe at home, 4 per cent did not agree that they felt safe at school, and 9 per cent did not agree at all that they felt safe when out and about in their neighbourhood. While these percentages are small they still add up to large numbers of children in each country.

Liking going to school – differences for girls and boys

Most children (62 per cent) totally agreed that they liked going to school. This is much higher than in our surveys of 10-year-olds (52 per cent) and 12-year-olds (42 per cent). Children in Algeria and Ethiopia were most likely to like going to school and children in Germany, South Korea and England the least likely. In some countries - including Israel and six European countries – girls were much more positive about school than boys, but in other countries such as Nepal and Ethiopia there was no difference between girls and boys.

Being bullied at school

Many of the children said that, in the last month, they had been left out by classmates (41 per cent) and that they had been hit by other children at school (48 per cent). These experiences were more common among children aged eight than in the older two age groups in the survey. The percentage of children who had been hit was highest in Estonia, England and Germany and lowest in South Korea. The percentage who had been left out was highest in England and Romania and lowest in South Korea and Ethiopia.

Knowledge of children’s rights

Almost half of children (46 per cent) said that they knew about children’s rights. This is lower than for older children aged 10 and 12 (58 per cent). Children in Colombia (73 per cent) were the most likely to know about children’s rights, and in Turkey, Ethiopia, Romania and Norway over half of children also answered ‘yes’ to this question.

Professor Asher Ben-Arieh, one of the study’s principal investigators and co-chair of the International Society of Child Indicators, said: “For the first time ever we are able to hear from almost 20,000 eight years old children from 16 countries what they do, feel and want. This remarkable achievement teaches us first and foremost that children know better than anyone else about their lives and that any effort to improve it needs to be inclusive of their voice.”

Gwyther Rees, of SPRU at the University of York, said: “There are some quite troubling messages from England and the picture is quite similar to what we found with older age groups. Children are happy at home and with friends but less happy at school where there seems to be an issue around bullying and being left out.”

Sam Royston, Policy Director at The Children’s Society, said: “It’s deeply worrying that eight-year-old children living in England are less happy than children living in a wide range of other countries across the world. Many of these children say they don’t like school and also report being bullied. If primary age school children in England are lagging behind those in other countries then tackling this challenge should be a priority for the British Government – as well as for schools – in the coming months.

“As a step towards this, the Government should consider making it a legal requirement for schools in England to provide counselling and to allocate children’s mental health funding to promote children’s well-being, rather than just dealing with mental health problems after they occur. Giving children a happy childhood should be a top priority.”

The Children’s Worlds project continues to grow with further countries including Indonesia, Finland and Italy joining the second wave of the survey. The third wave will start in September 2017 with initial findings to be published in early 2019.

Further information:

The Children’s Worlds study

  • Children’s Worlds, the International Survey of Children’s Well-Being (ISCWeB), is a worldwide research survey on children’s lives and subjective well-being.
  • The project fills a substantial gap in international comparative research evidence on children’s own views of their lives and well-being.   The study aims to collect solid and representative data on children’s lives and daily activities and on their perceptions and evaluations of their lives. The purpose is to improve children's well-being by creating awareness among children, their parents and their communities, opinion leaders, decision makers, professionals and the general public.
  • The current wave of the survey, which was funded by the Jacobs Foundation, has so far been completed with over 56,000 in three age groups (around 8, 10 and 12 years old) in 16 countries – Algeria, Colombia, Estonia, Ethiopia, Germany, Israel, Malta, Nepal, Norway, Poland, Romania, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Turkey and the UK (England).
  • The survey of this age group in England involved 990 children in Year 4 in a representative sample of schools in England.
  • The full report, an executive summary and accompanying materials are all available to read and download on the project website:
  • For more information about the Social Policy Research Unit at the University of York, please visit:
  • The Jacobs Foundation is active worldwide in promoting child and youth development. It was founded in Zurich, Switzerland, by entrepreneur Klaus J. Jacobs in 1989. The Jacobs Foundation allocates a budget of approximately 40 million Swiss francs per year to fund research projects, intervention programs and scientific institutions. It is committed to scientific excellence and evidence-based research. Over the last three years, the Jacobs Foundation has been supporting Children’s Worlds with a total amount of EUR 850,000 and has recently announced a grant of EUR 250,000 for the core project activities to support the next wave of the survey.

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