21st century childhoods may be very different but they still seem largely enjoyable

28 November 2014

Do children born in the UK at the beginning of the new millennium have some reasons to be cheerful? Yes, it appears that they do.

Some international studies have suggested that the nation’s children have a lower quality of life than their peers in other developed countries. However, most 11-year-olds, at least, seem very happy with their lives. And they are even happier with their families, even though many have experienced parental break-ups and financial hardship.

Around half (52%) of all children rate themselves ‘completely happy’ while three quarters (75%) are completely happy with their families, say researchers at the Institute of Education (IOE). Few children say that they are ‘very unhappy’ with either their families or their own life.

More than 80 per cent of the ‘children of the new century’ also enjoy going to school, it seems.

Although 13,000 young members of the Millennium Cohort Study (MCS) were surveyed at a time when most were facing the potentially stressful transfer to secondary education – just over half (52%) said that they were completely happy at school. Only one in ten children did not appear to like school.

Bullying was a problem for many of the MCS children, who were born in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland between 2000 and 2002. Seventy six per cent of children with siblings said they had been bullied by a brother or sister and 58 per cent of all children said they had been picked on by other children.

However, even though some experiences such as bullying are common, UK childhoods take many different forms and are largely shaped by not only children’s social background but their gender and ethnicity.

Friendships: Most MCS children had a good mix of friends. Over half of them had both boys and girls as friends and over 70 per cent had friends from different ethnic groups. Boys appear to be allowed more freedom than girls. Half of the boys (51%) said they spent time with their friends unsupervised most weekends compared to 43 per cent of girls.

Independent journeys: Very few children had used public transport on their own (4%) while almost half (48%) had never even travelled on public transport with an adult. “Our survey underlines the ever-greater reliance on the family car,” the researchers say. Boys were more likely than girls to travel on their own on a bike (36% to 23%) or on foot (54% to 44%). Independent journeys on foot were most likely to be made by Black Caribbean children (55%) and least likely by Indian 11-year-olds (23%).

Feeling safe: The vast majority of children (89%) felt ‘safe’ or ‘very safe’ in their home neighbourhood. Just 9 per cent said it was ‘not very safe’ and 1 per cent thought it was ‘not at all safe’.

However, there seem to be more reasons than before to stay indoors.

Computers: Almost all MCS children (95%) had access to a home computer linked to the internet (up from 81% at age 7). Seventeen per cent of children said they spent three or more hours watching TV or a video on a computer on a weekday while 3 per cent sat in front of a screen for seven or more hours. About 4 in 10 (46% of girls and 39% of boys) had their own computer. But there were large ethnic disparities. Just over 2 in 10 Bangladeshi, Pakistani and Black African children had their own computer compared with 4 in 10 in all other ethnic groups.

The overwhelming majority of parents had rules about the time their child could spend on the computer and the material they could watch on it, but the percentage increased with parent qualification level. For parents with no qualifications, 84 per cent had rules on time and 90 per cent on content compared with 93 per cent and 97 per cent respectively among parents with higher degrees. Black African parents were most likely to have time and content rules.

Mobile phones: Nearly three quarters (72%) of the children had their own mobile phone at age 11 (up from the 15 per cent at age 7). More than a third (37%) of those with a mobile could use it to access the internet. More girls (77%) than boys (67%) had their own phone, as was the case at age 7. Again, there were big ethnic differences in the proportion of children with a mobile phone (Black Caribbean 78%, Bangladeshi 12%).

TVs in bedrooms: MCS children were also more likely to have a TV in their bedroom at age 11 (60%) than at age 7 (45%). More boys (63%) than girls (57%) had one at age 11, reversing the situation at age 7. Children with lower qualified parents were most likely (76%) to have a TV. Just 15 per cent of Bangladeshi and 19 per cent of Pakistani children had one compared to 65 per cent of White children.

Social media: More than one in four girls (28%) and almost one in five boys (19%) exchanged messages with friends via the internet on most days. However, nearly half of boys (46%) and a third of girls (31%) never messaged friends.

The MCS age 11 survey was also designed to establish whether the children were beginning to adopt antisocial behaviours or unhealthy habits.

Antisocial behaviour: Very few children said they had damaged public property. But 24 per cent of boys and 14 per cent of girls said they had been noisy or rude in public. Seven per cent of boys and 4 per cent of girls admitted they had taken something from a shop without paying for it.

Drinking and smoking: Three per cent of 11-year-olds had smoked a cigarette while 13 per cent had tried an alcoholic drink. But only 2 per cent of boys and less than 1 per cent of girls said they had ever had enough alcohol to feel drunk.

“There may be increasing public concern about young people’s risky and antisocial behaviours but the responses we got from 11-year-olds were rather reassuring,” the IOE researchers conclude. “Relatively few children had drunk alcohol, smoked a cigarette or engaged in antisocial behaviour. The Millennium generation may not be perfect but at age 11 their behaviour was giving little cause for concern.

“We will, however, gather more information on smoking and drinking and antisocial activities when we carry out the age 14 survey next year. There are obviously no grounds for complacency. It’s concerning if any children are smoking or drinking at age 11.”

Read the full report and briefing paper

Briefing paper: Growing up and independence: Initial findings from the Millennium Cohort Study Age 11 survey

Full report: Smith, K. and Parsons, S. (2014) Growing Up and Independence. In Platt, L. (ed) Millennium Cohort Study Age 11 Survey Initial Findings. London: Centre for Longitudinal Studies (CLS).

Podcast: An introduction to the Millennium Cohort Study – with Emla Fitzsimons

Further information

David Budge
020 7911 5349
07881 415362

Meghan Rainsberry
020 7612 6530
07531 864 481

Notes for editors

  1. The Millennium Cohort Study is following children born in the UK between September 2000 and January 2002. The study is managed by the Centre for Longitudinal Studies at the Institute of Education, London. The five surveys of cohort members conducted so far – at ages 9 months and 3, 5, 7 and 11 years – have built up a uniquely detailed portrait of the children of the new century. The study has collected information on diverse aspects of their lives, including behaviour, cognitive development, health, schooling, housing and parents’ employment and education.
  2. The Millennium Cohort Study’s survey of 11-year-olds was carried out by Ipsos MORI between January 2012 and February 2013. Trained fieldworkers conducted 13,287 interviews with the children and their parents/guardians. Data from this survey and previous MCS surveys can be downloaded from the UK Data Service.
  3. The paper-and-pencil questionnaire completed by 13,160 children asked how they would rate themselves on a seven-point scale from ‘completely happy’ to ‘not at all happy’. Apart from the small group of families with no natural parent, the proportion who were ‘very unhappy’, with their families, or life in general, was no higher than 4 per cent.
  4. The study is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and a consortium of government departments, co-ordinated by the Office for National Statistics and including the Department for Education, the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department of Health, the Department for Transport, the Home Office, the Welsh Government, the Scottish Government and the Northern Ireland Executive.
  5. The Institute of Education is a world-leading university specialising in education and the social sciences. Founded in 1902, the Institute currently has more than 7,000 students and 800 staff. In the 2014 QS World University Rankings, the Institute was ranked number one for education worldwide. It has been shortlisted in the ‘University of the Year’ category of the 2014 Times Higher Education (THE) awards. In January 2014, the Institute was recognised by Ofsted for its ‘outstanding’ initial teacher training across primary, secondary and further education. In the most recent Research Assessment Exercise two-thirds of the publications that the IOE submitted were judged to be internationally significant and over a third were judged to be ‘world leading’. On 2 December 2014, the Institute will become a single-faculty school of UCL, called the UCL Institute of Education. www.ioe.ac.uk
  6. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) funds research into the big social and economic questions facing us today. It also develops and trains the UK’s future social scientists. Its research informs public policies and helps make businesses, voluntary bodies and other organisations more effective. The ESRC is an independent organisation, established by Royal Charter in 1965, and funded mainly by the Government. In 2015 the ESRC celebrates its 50th anniversary.

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