The childhood challenges of the 21st century

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:

The latest findings of the Millennium Cohort Study, which is following the lives of children born at the turn of the century, reveal the challenges of modern childhood, including poverty, obesity and fractured families. Despite this, the study finds that children are happy with life, family and schooling

Poverty affects more than half of today's children

More than half of children born at the turn of the century in the UK have experienced poverty at some point during their first 11 years.

Furthermore, one in six of the around 13,300 children being followed by the Millennium Cohort Study have been brought up in "persistently poor families".

The Millennium Cohort Study is following children born in the UK between September 2000 and January 2002.

Notably, the research – by the Institute of Education (IoE) in London – found that 30 per cent of children who are being brought up by a single parent were living in persistent poverty. So to were 26 per cent of those being brought up by a disabled parent.

Furthermore, the children growing up in persistent poverty were split 50-50 between families that had work and those which were workless. Also, children living in Wales (21 per cent) and Northern Ireland (19 per cent) were more likely to be persistently poor than those in England (16 per cent) and Scotland (13 per cent).

The study has collected information from the families on five occasions to date – at age 9 months, and 3, 5, 7 and 11 years.

If a family was in poverty – living on less than 60 per cent of the median income of all families in the study – at four or more of these data collection points, it was considered to be "persistently poor".

The findings have been published after the annual report from social justice charity the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, revealed that there are now 13 million people living in poverty in the UK, with as many as 6.6 million of these living in working families. Within this figure, as many as 3.7 million children are living in poverty – a number which has doubled during the past 30 years.

In addition, the recent State of the Nation 2014 update from the government's Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission concluded that one in six children in Britain is living in relative poverty.

Particular concern has been voiced by the IoE researchers after they found that children from minority ethnicities (except Indian) were more likely to be living in persistent poverty in the UK. This ranged from 20 per cent for those with mixed ethnicity to 56 per cent for Pakistani or Bangladeshi children.

Professor Lucinda Platt, who led the age 11 survey, said: "Our findings are concerning because poverty is undoubtedly bad for children. It can have a negative effect on their educational attainment, health and behaviour in childhood, and can have adverse consequences in adulthood. Long durations of poverty put children at particular risk of poorer outcomes during their school years and in later life.

"Lone parent families are more likely to be workless, and it is this that puts them at a higher risk of persistent poverty. Similarly, disability is associated with poverty because of the impact it can have on employment. However, children from minority ethnic groups were also more likely to be persistently poor than White children, even after accounting for whether one or both parents were employed. This reflects, for instance, the lower average wages of Pakistani and Bangladeshi adults."

A fifth of children are obese at age 11

One in five of the Millennium Cohort Study children left primary school obese. The researchers had previously found that at age 7, 13 per cent of the cohort was obese. However, the latest figures show that this has now risen to 20 per cent at age 11. Furthermore, another 15 per cent of the 13,300 children were overweight at age 11.

The IoE researchers found a "clear link" between a child's weight at age 11 and their parents' level of education.

A total of 25 per cent of children whose parents had no educational qualifications were obese. However, for children who had at least one parent with a degree, 15 per cent were obese. When broken down by country, the study shows that at age 11, 40 per cent of children living in Wales and Northern Ireland were overweight or obese. This compares to 35 per cent in England and 33 per cent in Scotland.

Overall, boys at age 11 had an average weight of 41kg while girls weighed on average 42kg. The children's weight was also strongly associated with that of their mothers, with 36 per cent of children with obese mothers being obese themselves.

Dr Roxanne Connelly, who analysed the data, said: "The number of children who were an unhealthy weight was significantly greater at age 11 than in previous Millennium Cohort Study surveys. The overall proportion who were either overweight or obese rose from 25 per cent at age 7 to 35 per cent at age 11. These findings highlight the value of the Millennium Cohort Study for addressing issues relating to child health and, in particular, for advancing our understanding of the 'obesity epidemic'. One of the key issues we now need to focus on is why there was such a sharp increase in overweight and obesity among the Millennium Cohort Study children between ages 7 and 11."

Family breakdown affects a third of children

The number of families headed by two natural parents fell from 85 to 61 per cent within the first decade of the Millennium Cohort Study. In fact, researchers have found that a change in parental relationships has affected 35 per cent of the around 13,300 children in the cohort.

This includes an 11 percentage point rise in the number of single parent families during the first decade – from 15 per cent at age nine months to 26 per cent at age 11. There has also been a similar increase in the number of "blended" families, those which include a step-parent. At age 11, 12 per cent were living in such families, compared to less than one per cent at age nine months.

Notably, the IoE researchers found that more than a quarter of 11-year-olds in lone and step-parent families had behavioural problems, compared to just over one in 10 of those in two-natural-parent homes. The research also found that at age 11, one per cent of the children were not living with either natural parent. These children were most likely of all to have behavioural difficulties (35 per cent).

Overall, researchers found that across the five surveys of the study so far, 64 per cent of families have experienced no change in their structure. However, 21 per cent had seen one change, while 14 per cent had experienced two or more changes.

In terms of marriage, the number of families with two natural parents who were married (rather than cohabiting) fell from 60 per cent at age nine months to 50 per cent at age 11. Researchers said the fall was because "a significant number of marriages ended".

Children happy with life, family and school

More than 80 per cent of the Millennium Cohort Study children enjoy going to school. In fact, most of the 13,300 children seem very happy with their lives – more than half said they were themselves "completely happy", while three-quarters said they felt the same way about their families.

The children were interviewed at age 11, just as they faced the often stressful transition into secondary school life.

However, 52 per cent said they were "completely happy" at school, selecting number 1 on the scale of 1 to 7. A further 28 per cent selected 2 or 3 and only six per cent said they were not happy at all (number 7).

The study found that most of the children had a mix of friends, with more than half having both boys and girls as friends and more than 70 per cent having friends from different ethnic groups.
Bullying was identified by a number of the children, with 76 per cent of those with siblings saying that they had been bullied by a brother or sister. Overall, 58 per cent of the children said they have been bullied by other children. However, 89 per cent of the children said they felt "safe" or "very safe" in their home neighbourhoods.

Elsewhere, researchers were buoyed by the discovery that only three per cent of the 11-year-olds said they had smoked a cigarette. Thirteen per cent said they had tried an alcoholic drink, although only two per cent of the boys and one per cent of the girls said they had had enough to "feel drunk".

The research states: "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. 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. There are obviously no grounds for complacency. It's concerning if any children are smoking or drinking at age 11."

Other notable findings include that 95 per cent of the children had access to an internet-linked home computer, up from 81 per cent at age 7, while 72 per cent of the children had their own mobile phone at age 11, with 37 per cent of these having an internet-enable phone.

Further information

For more on all the findings, see the report Millennium Cohort Study Age 11 Survey Initial Findings, which is available on the website of the Centre for Longitudinal Studies at the IoE. Visit

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