Hilary Armstrong on tackling the big challenges facing today’s generation of children and teenagers
We’ve all been young – even if some of us have almost forgotten what it was like! And sometimes, this means we think we know what life is like for young people growing up in the UK today.
The reality is different. Some stories are good. Far fewer young people smoke, and they spend more money on mobile phones than on drink. Many more than before will get qualifications at school and go onto university, and there are fewer teenage pregnancies.
At the same time however, there are significant challenges. Social media has opened up incredible opportunities for young people, allowing them to self-publish poems and books, stream music, and communicate with friends around the world. But they can also get bullied, be subject to grooming and exploitation, and suffer a different form of loneliness – one laced with insecurity and lack of self-worth.
The latest ‘Macquarie Youth Index’ from The Princes’ Trust reveals happiness and confidence among young people are at their lowest since measurements began nine years ago. And the number who do not feel in control of their lives has increased by a third in the past year alone.
We know from a range of evidence that mental health challenges have really increased in recent years. The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health reports that, of 5 to 19 year olds in 2017, one in eight had a diagnosed mental health disorder, and one in twenty had more than one. We also know that half of adult mental health problems start before the age of 14, and 75% before they turn 24.
In addition to such diagnosed problems, many organisations working with young people tell stories of the additional challenges young people face. Sometimes from academic pressure or social media, but also where they come from impoverished families or have experienced trauma from domestic abuse. And there are many other greater challenges too.
The number of children and young people ending up in care has risen to very difficult levels. We also know that too many of them face difficulties in the care system experience. Too many end up in the criminal justice system, or in exploitative relationships when they try to move on.
The rise in knife crime meanwhile, has shown how vulnerable some young people are – particularly in poorer neighbourhoods – to gang leaders and drug traffickers, with the perpetrators often having been victims themselves.
And increased homelessness is having severe consequences for some young people, who – with their families – are being moved miles away from where they were living. This more often than not involves working out a new school, new sets of friends, and getting to know a new area. All of that adds to those youngsters’ vulnerability.
All of this is happening within a context of diminishing opportunities to find support, and to work things out for yourself. Since 2010, youth service spending has declined by 64%. Having been a youth and community worker, and trained others in those roles, I know the opportunities that can be opened up for young people. I also know the safe spaces needed to work things out and challenge yourself.
Young people have ambitions and want a better world, decent homes and jobs. Yet we build so many barriers rather than listen, understand new ways of communicating, and enable them to make a contribution. They also need to be safe.
Government is not the whole answer but its sets the context and can close down or help set up opportunities. As things stands, there seems little chance of ministers recognising this – let alone engaging effectively with young people in ways that will ultimately benefit us all.
Baroness Hilary Armstrong of Hill Top is a Labour Peer
Published 12th December 2018