Britain's children have never been wealthier or more privileged - but they have been happier. Teachers, doctors, psychologists and other opinion-makers have voiced concern about an increase in childhood depression, as well as in related problems such as eating disorders, obesity and drug abuse.
While it is true that children the world over are vulnerable to the damage today's competitive, image-obsessed society can inflict, research indicates that Britain is serving its children worse than many other nations. "There is clearly a mood in the UK that as a society we have got some important things wrong about childhood," said Bob Reitemeier, chief executive of The Children's Society, an NGO that has been working with disadvantaged children for 125 years. "We need to turn this into positive action."
To attempt to understand and address the problem, the NGO is carrying out the nation's first independent inquiry into what makes a good childhood. It has high-profile backing from head of the Church of England, the Archbishop of Canterbury.
"I urge all those interested in the health and happiness of young people to contribute their ideas. The Good Childhood Inquiry provides a rare opportunity to see the world from a child's perspective; to value children for who they are and to shape a new vision of childhood for society as a whole," Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams said in September 2006.
He was launching "a call for evidence" that runs until November 13 as part of ongoing research that will be completed in 2008. The Archbishop spoke to the nation just after a group of teachers, children's authors and psychologists wrote a letter published in Britain's Daily Telegraph newspaper in which they emphasized "the escalating incidence of childhood depression" and called for child-rearing to be made central to public debate and policy-making.
As possible causes, the letter cited factors such as the acceleration of technological and cultural change, a sedentary, computer-dominated environment and test-driven education. "They are pushed by market forces to act and dress like mini-adults and exposed via electronic media to material that would have been considered unsuitable for children even in the very recent past," the letter said.
Comparison with other nations is difficult. But academics from the University of York in northern England, together with a consultant for the United Nations Children's Fund, developed more than 50 different indicators, covering issues such as health and education, in order to give scores to countries across the European Union. They created an index of children's well-being that was published online in July 2006. The study ranked Britain 21st of the 25 European States, above only the Slovak Republic, Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania. Among rich, western European states, Britain was given the lowest rating.
Although high in the league of educational attainment and housing quality, it was marked down in areas including the quality of children's relationships with their parents and peers, and risky behavior such as drug use and teenage pregnancy. It was also near the bottom of the pile when it came to the overall question of happiness.
The Archbishop's call for children, young people and the general public to contribute their views on what makes for a good childhood continues a quest that began last year when The Children's Society, together with the University of York, surveyed more than 11,000 children aged between 14 and 16 in Britain.
The survey questions placed the emphasis on the need for safety, freedom, and a structured family life with clear values and friends. The children's comments were reproduced exactly, complete with spelling and grammatical mistakes, and included "exams - stress - too many exams", a plea for "some one to talk to and some one to lisene (listen)" and a denunciation of "bullies, prejudice and other offensive (offences) committed to prevent a young person having a good life".
The Good Childhood Inquiry will broaden this research by asking yet more questions and combining the views and experiences of children and the general public with the findings of academic research.
British think-tank, the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR), believes some of the problems are connected to a breakdown in the social fabric that has deepened the gap between youth and adults. It also found that Britain compared unfavorably with its European counterparts and that Britons were more likely to blame the nation's youth for social problems than, say, French or German people were.
The IPPR has announced it will publish a report in November 2006 entitled 'Freedom's Orphans: Raising Youth in a Changing World', which puts forward as a solution mandatory structured activities for young people outside school hours and supervised by adults. In a statement, IPPR said it would recommend that every school pupil from the age of 11 to 16 take part in at least two hours a week of "structured and purposeful extracurricular activities", such as drama and sports.
IPPR's analysis of data from people each born in the year 1958 and the year 1970 (17,200 people for each year) found that, by the age of 30, young people who had participated in sports or community centers at age 16 were 3 per cent less likely to be depressed. They were also 5 per cent less likely to be single, separated or divorced; 2 per cent less likely to have no qualifications; and 3 per cent less likely to be on a low income.
While welcoming further research, the British government, though, also emphasizes what it has already done for Britain's children. "The government has done a huge amount to improve the lives of children. Better educational achievement has been accompanied by improvements in school food, investment in school sport, reforms in children's services and the increased availability of activities outside the school day," said Children's Minister Beverley Hughes.
The problem is all this is yet to make children happy.