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Unhappy Children and Young People

A recent survey from the Prince’s Trust makes sad reading. Interviews with 2,136 young people in the UK aged 16-24, indicates that 1 in 10 feel they cannot cope with day-to-day life. ‘Neets’, those not in work, education or training are more than twice as likely to feel that way with 52% saying they often or always feel depressed. The survey also found that nearly a quarter of young people, 22%, felt that they did not have anyone they could talk to about their problems. The mental health of children and young people has long been a concern, with organisations such as the BACP (British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy) carrying out several studies that have looked at this. The Nuffield Foundation has carried out a substantive review of many aspects of the mental wellbeing of young people, with results published here. Colleagues and I at the University of Cambridge carried out research for the Nuffield Foundation that looked at the wellbeing of children in school at the time of transition from Primary to Secondary school, and results were published in the book ‘The Supportive School’ (2011). The Nuffield Foundation’s research indicated that in fact there had been no increase in the level of teenage mental health between 2009 and 2004. It may be however that the current recession and poor work prospects for young people are reversing this trend.

The same survey from the Prince’s Trust links a lack of structure at home when young people were growing up with poor grades at school. ‘Lack of structure’ included no set meal times or set bed time, the latter being claimed by a quarter of young people, 27%. Lack of qualifications clearly has an impact on the way young people feel about their job prospects. According to the survey, a third of those interviewed with lower qualifications claimed to ‘always’ or ‘often’ feel rejected, compared to 22% of young people overall.

Schools can clearly play a large part in helping young people to feel included and to help them have a sense of structure. Our experience over the last eighteen months working with schools for the Tablets for Schools initiative has shown us just how much schools are doing to encourage inclusion, and to help children learn about structure and routine. Preparing children for the skills they need to become employable by facilitating teaching and learning through one-to-one digital devices can help all young people to feel they are part of the fast growing digital world.

Tablets for Schools

This month sees the launch of the Tablets for Schools website and the publication of stage 1 of our research report. Tablets for Schools is a CSR initiative led by Andrew Harrison, CEO at the Carphone Warehouse, and supported by Dixons, Samsung, Acer, Microsoft, eLearning Foundation, Sony, TalkTalk and 9ine amongst others. The research carried out 2011-12 followed 3 schools in Essex, Kent and Belfast that had introduced one-to-one tablets for pupils in September 2011 and included a ‘control’ school (where one-to-one tablets were not used) in Essex and two feeder primary schools. We followed the schools’ journey through their first year of tablet adoption, and carried out ethnography in class, and focus groups with pupils, teachers and parents, as well as in-depth interviews with school leadership. The report also includes a look at the global adoption of one-to-one tablets in education, and a literature review that considers the effects on pedagogy of one-to-one devices in schools.

Results suggest several benefits to learning including an increased motivation to learn; increased parental engagement; more efficient monitoring of progress between pupil and teacher; greater collaboration between teacher and pupil and between pupil and pupil. It appears that one-to-one Tablets offer a sense of inclusion that allow children, irrespective of socio-economic status or level of attainment, an opportunity to thrive through a new pedagogical model of pupil-led learning. Stage 2 of the research began in October, and includes 9 schools that have or are about to adopt one-to-one tablets in this academic year. Full details can be found on the Tablets for Schools website.

Digital Kids at MIP Junior, Cannes

Cannes in October is not to be missed. Speaking about our Digital Kids and Youth Research (see here) this month at MIP Junior prompted much discussion about the nature of children’s engagement with digital content. It can be complex. Like many adults, children expect to be entertained through their digital device, but they also view it, or them (for many have more than one means of connecting to the internet) as an extension of their friendship network, even as young as seven. For example we have found that 28% of 7-10 year olds and 68% of 10-13 year olds are using Facebook, often set up by a parent or older sibling to prompt and maintain family connections. However we have also discovered that a substantial number of early adolescents (especially 11 plus) have a second account, one that family do not know about, thus maintaining their privacy and being accessible to friends only. The number of children aged 7-16 now using a smartphone, tablet or iPod touch has reached 6 out of 10, and 8 out of 10 are downloading apps. Our research has shown that it is not the case that children use digital devices only for entertainment. Many also expect to use their device for information and for homework, and to create their own content. Witnessing children using apps for their own entertainment, to share with friends, and to create school work opens up new opportunity to inspire children’s natural ability to be creative and to be autonomous.

Children in Chile

An invitation to Chile this month to talk about child development and the beneficial effects of music to children’s social, emotional and cognitive progress was the result of our report on Children and Music prepared for Unilever. Supporting Unilever’s CSR initiative with Unicef, children from a poor area of Santiago played in a superbly produced ‘swing band’ at the launch of the report. Questions from the audience that included representatives of children’s organisations, business, politicians and press centred on the way in which music can be made accessible to all. Clearly a challenge when both instruments and lessons are expensive, but as Gareth Malone, the charismatic leader of several choirs in the UK including the highly successful Military Wives choir argues, many people can be inspired to sing. The social benefits of joining in, having a common purpose, being supportive to peers and experiencing the uplifting effects of making a sound that can be enjoyed and appreciated by an audience can help children to feel engaged and can improve their self-esteem. Chile is a beautiful country, and the snow-capped mountains surrounding Santiago in August where it is early Spring are magnificent. The warmth and hospitality of the country was clear and it was inspiring to see the work that Unicef and Unilever are doing to help children in Chile.

Tablet Schools: inspiring schools and inspiring leadership

In our recent research we have been visiting UK schools that use one-to-one tablet computers. Research has included ethnography, focus groups and individual interviews with pupils, teachers and parents. A noticeable characteristic of these schools is the inspiring leadership and innovative thinking that has led to the adoption of one-to-one devices. While undoubtedly a big commitment and one that requires a big investment on the part of the school, including ensuring that there is sufficient wifi available in classrooms, the effects of tablets appears to be beneficial to both pedagogy and pupil motivation. The school leadership argue that it is not the device itself that makes the difference, but that allowing children to have their own tablet enables them to learn in a way that encourages independent learning and produce creative material associated with their learning. Initial fears that centred on the potential for theft and pupil safety have not been realised, although there has been an issue with breakages. Full results of the research will be published in the Autumn, and top line results will be presented at the launch of the Tablets for Schools initiative at the House of Lords next month.

Children need recognition and acceptance

Much has been written about the Tiger Mother, and the term ‘helicopter parenting’ appears to be ubiquitous. But what exactly does this mean, and why is there such questioning about the style of parenting adopted globally? Constant, demanding attention on the part of an over-ambitious (and over-anxious) parent is not healthy for children. While they need encouragement to learn and to thrive, children also need space and privacy.

Parenting styles have always differed across cultures, across generations and across social class. Pragmatic reasons drive this. In a family with several children and little money, getting by, making do and being a ‘good enough’ parent must and does suffice. While perhaps not able to respond to their child’s every whim and demand, parenting that has clear boundaries and plenty of love tends to give children the circumstances in which to thrive. Equally children brought up by wealthy and highly educated parents but with little parental contact or emotional understanding can have real problems, best summed up by Virginia Axline’s classic story of the child ‘Dibs’.

In this true case study Axline, a child psychiatrist, describes the work she did over the course of a year with the young 5 year old to whom, to protect his identity, she gives the name ‘Dibs’. Dibs displays disturbing behaviour; he is unable to communicate, is uncooperative, and cannot look anyone in the eye. His high attaining parents wonder if he is ‘mentally defective’ (the book was written in the 1960’s when such a term was not uncommon), and completely fail to recognise that he is in fact highly gifted with an IQ of 168. A previous psychiatrist had told the parents, perhaps confusingly and certainly not tactfully, that it was not Dibs who needed treatment, but them, as parents. Dibs was an emotionally deprived child; the parents responded by filling his play room with toys.

Axline arrives to treat him at the request of his school where he has failed to communicate with peers or teachers. Over the course of a year she allows Dibs to express himself through play, and ‘Dibs in Search of Self’ is the classic text that describes the process of play therapy, as well as describing the core conditions that lie at the heart of psychotherapist Carl Roger’s ‘person centred’ therapy: unconditional positive regard; empathy; and congruence.

So recognising children’s emotional needs is important, but labelling children as in some way ‘defective’ for not meeting the high expectations of ambitious parents can be damaging. Parenting styles differ, and there may be no one right way to bring up children, but remembering those core conditions might go some way in helping parents ensure that their child develops in a full and healthy manner, while also providing the tools to enjoy being a parent. Hovering over them and pushing them to attain may not be the right response. In a global world it is important to recognise and appreciate different parenting styles, but equally to sympathise with parents’ wishes. Parents should not be blamed, but they might need support to learn to relax, and to appreciate their child for who they are, and not who they wish they could be.

As Axline wrote: ‘A child, given the opportunity, has the gift of honest, forthright communication. A mother who is respected and accepted with dignity can also be sincerely expressive when she knows that she will not be criticized and blamed.’

Allowing children the freedom to play outside

The Nation Trust’s campaign to allow children the freedom the play is something that resonates with much of the work we have done over the last few years. The ’50 things to do before you are 11 ¾’ campaign sums up beautifully the ability of a charitable organisation to promote behavioural change amongst children and families. Based on research carried out by the Trust, the campaign provides a checklist for under 12’s to get active and enjoy being outdoors. This is similar to the ‘Really Big Summer Adventure’ run by the Department of Health’s Change4Life campaign last summer which provided a range of simple activities (including bug hunting) to do throughout the summer holidays.

The National Trust’s research found that children spend less than a tenth of their time playing outdoors, but an average of 2 ½ hours a day watching television. Grandparents on the other hand recalled being outside for much of the day when they were children, and the Trust is hoping to encourage grandparents to teach children about the pleasure of being outside. A report by PlayEngland demonstrated that half of all children had been prevented from climbing trees, and 1 in 5 had been prevented from playing games of ‘tag’ or conkers. Author of the National Trust’s report ‘Natural Childhood’, Stephen Moss, calls on schools, councils and private institutions to create more play spaces as well as teach children about nature. Stephen Moss is also author of the excellent ‘The Bumper Book of Nature’ (Square Peg, 2009).

Our research for IKEA, The Play Report, revealed the extent to which parents were concerned about their children playing outside, unsupervised. It also showed that many parents feel too stressed to play with their children. Relearning the values held by previous generations when children were allowed more freedom, taking risks was part of growing up, and being outside was an important part of childhood, might be a difficult shift to make, but one that could benefit parents and children.

Should commercial researchers be more academic, or should academics be more commercial?

Ethical committees in Universities are challenging and questioning about the way research is carried out, especially in relation to vulnerable participants, and research with children. Some of the post-graduate students I’ve supervised over the last few years with subjects that centre on child development and wellbeing have steered clear of certain topics, or even avoided doing research with children at all for fear of being turned down by ethics committees. Which raises the question about whether the same scrutiny should apply to commercial research?

Some professional academic researchers (in that they are employed by Universities to carry out research) profess to being driven mad by the hurdles of ethics committees, not least because of the time it takes to prepare materials and to have clearance. In the commercial world such luxury of time may not be possible. It could be argued however that to ensure that research is valid, and especially research carried out with vulnerable participants, it should never be rushed or not thought through.

Academic research, in the UK amongst other countries, is highly regarded and trusted. While mostly highly respected, this may nevertheless not always the case of commercial research. If this means ensuring that the research methodology, sampling and proposed reporting is subject to the scrutiny of a body of professional researchers beforehand, as well as results rigorously peer reviewed afterwards, this should not be challenged. It could be argued that commercial research should sometimes take a leaf out of academia in ensuring that it is truly robust, ethical, fair, and interpreted in a way that reflects the high standards of the professional commercial research industry. The demand for instant results will always be there, but commercial researchers may sometimes need to push back and argue for time, consideration, and peer review of results.

Kids as Consumers

There is little heard now about ‘Pester Power’ or the ‘Nag Factor’, but these were terms frequently used a few years back by marketers. Happening on a brochure from a very old conference about marketing to children, held in a southern European city, it is clear from this that the message appeared to be ‘how do we persuade kids to buy, or pester their parents to buy for them’. It is refreshing, and probably says a lot for the adoption of CSR by large organisations, that the emphasis now is on child wellbeing; how might we understand children and how might we protect children rather than how do we sell to them. Not that children today are regarded any less as consumers, but they are rightly viewed also as potentially vulnerable consumers with rights. Perhaps the industry has grown up. Certainly many of our clients now have children of their own, something that was not always the case a few years back when anything to do with kids was delegated to junior execs.

My experience is that clients today have a deep interest in and hunger for knowledge about their target market, be it child development, cultural differences, behaviour, or psychology. They are far more sophisticated and sensitive in the way they communicate with families and children, and are eager to learn about children’s world and children’s behaviour. ‘Learn how to maximise pester power and tips for encouraging kids to ask for your product’ (a true quote from that old conference brochure) is unlikely to be seen again.

Conferences, and myth busting about kids and digital

I attended an excellent conference yesterday at the British Library (yesterday was ‘Super Thursday’, the day booksellers rush out titles for Christmas). Organised by The Bookseller, the Children’s Conference looked at the digital landscape for children and considered how this is impacting on print media; the conference had a thoughtful and receptive audience as well as insightful co-speakers. I presented key findings from our Digital Family Kids and Youth research.

It is the season of conferences; last week was the ESOMAR Congress in Amsterdam, where I presented a paper co-written with Catriona Ferris from Unilever on the change in family life in emerging countries such as China and Brazil. In the hotel lift on the way to breakfast on Tuesday I met the conference cartoonist Mark Siermaczeski ( which resulted in a highly entertaining breakfast; he has since sent a cartoon – not bad drawn from memory.

There has been much discussion about the UNICEF Research carried out in the UK, Spain and Sweden, published 14 September. Being qualitative research it inevitably focused on relatively small samples of families (8 in each country) and groups of children (2 groups or depth interviews in 7 schools per country). The report pointed out that families in the UK appear to be more materialistic than in Spain or Sweden. The conference yesterday emphasised the reality of children’s lives today and the place of digital devices, and there was discussion about digital media replacing parental engagement. Parents do feel guilty about the amount of time and the quality of time they spend with their children, but our IKEA Play Report research, carried out with 11,000 parents and children in 25 countries, emphasised how common this is in many countries, and how children do indeed want their parents to spend more time with them. While our Play Report reflects much of what was in the UNICEF research, we did not find that the UK was particularly worse that Spain or Sweden in terms of parental time and feelings of guilt.

At yet another very good conference last week the third wave of the EU Kids Online research was launched at the LSE, London. Sonia Livingstone summed up the findings by questioning a number of myths that abound around children and digital. Included in these was the myth that children are meeting strangers online. This certainly backs up our research; most children are meeting their friends online, and as I have frequently argued, it is those children who are vulnerable in the off-line world who are most vulnerable in the online world. If parents do not have the ability, the time, or the inclination to engage with their children, this can leave their children more vulnerable to becoming lonely and isolated, which in turn might make them victims of unpleasant experiences online. There was a general call for adults – parents, teachers, social workers – to become better clued up about children’s online activity, a point emphasised at yesterday’s conference by Tamara Littleton, CEO of eModeration. Tamara described the work that eModeration does in monitoring websites, and made the point that many responsible social networking sites can do a great deal to protect children and moderate language and behaviour; this must be reassuring for parents.

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