The experience of teenagers has changed considerably over the last 30-40 years, including a significant increase in the rate of anxiety, depression and behaviour problems according to new research from the Nuffield Foundation. In addition to increased levels of anxiety and depression, today’s teenagers are more likely to be in education and less likely to be in paid employment than their counterparts in the 70s and 80s, leading to a longer and less structured period of adolescence. Youth depression and anxiety life for teenagers has also changed.
These findings are from the Nuffield Foundation’s Changing Adolescence Programme and are published today by Policy Press in a new book, Changing Adolescence: Social trends and mental health, which explores how social change has affected young people’s behaviour, mental health and transitions toward adulthood. 16 year olds reporting that they frequently feel anxious or depressed has doubled in the last 30 years, from 1 in 30 to 2 in 30 for boys and 1 in 10 to 2 in ten for girls. 7 per cent in 1974, to approximately 15 per cent in 1999. There is evidence that these increases have levelled in more recent years. For example, there was no rise in symptoms of emotional problems between 1999 and 2004. The youth labour market has collapsed in recent decades.
In the mid 1980s, over 40 per cent of 16-19 year olds were in full time employment. By 2007, this figure was less than 20 per cent. Data from the DfE for 2009 show 69 per cent of 16-18 year olds in full-time education, compared to 32 per cent in 1985. This increase is largely accounted for by greater numbers of young people from lower and middle socio-economic groups staying on. The number on A level courses has increased since the 1970s from 18 per cent to over 40 per cent. The numbers on vocational courses have also increased, although many of these courses are part-time or less structured than the A level track.
Trends in the consumption of drugs and alcohol have fluctuated since the 1980s, and overall average levels have decreased slightly in recent years. But the absolute level of alcohol consumption amongst 11-15 year olds is higher in the UK than most other countries. For example, 25 per cent of teenagers in the UK report drinking by age 13 or younger, whereas in other European countries this figure ranged from 10-19 per cent. Underage drinking in the UK is characterised by early onset, high volume of intake and more binge drinking, factors which play an important role in determining whether substance use is likely to become problematic. Around 20 per cent of all children will have experienced divorce by the age of 16 years, compared to around 10 per cent in the mid 1970s. There is some evidence that about 15-30 per cent of the change in emotional and behavioural problems could possibly be linked to the change in family structure, but the majority of the change has to be explained by other causes. Parents and teenagers are choosing to spend more time together than in the 1980s, and today’s parents are more likely to know where their teenage children are and what they are doing than their 1980s equivalents.