An Oxford University Press (OUP) survey of 8,000 children from 85 different schools determined that children chose the term “anxiety” as the word of the year for 2021. Notably, children picked this term during the on-going coronavirus pandemic, in relation to health and wellbeing, rather than the obvious terms: “mask,” “virus,” or “pandemic.” The OUP claim this reflects a significant growth in the vocabulary of mental health and wellbeing. Close behind anxiety were the words “challenging” (chosen by 19% of the children), as well as “isolate” (14%) and “wellbeing” (13%). The Children’s Society’s executive director of social impact, Joe Jenkins, said it was ‘concerning’ that anxiety had been chosen as the top word (21%), but not surprising.
The children’s word of the year has a tendency to reflect the social and political climate of the United Kingdom (UK), with previous entries including: coronavirus (2020), Brexit (2019), plastic (2018), Trump (2017), and refugee (2016). In this case, the choice of “anxiety” reflects the decline of children’s wellbeing and the rise of mental health issues among children, as opposed to young people, especially since the pandemic began.
There are now over 300,000 children, between the ages of 10 to 15 alone, who are unhappy with their lives
Over the last decade, there has been a downwards trend in children’s wellbeing in the UK. A report by the Children’s Society found that children were less happy with their future, school, and appearance in 2021, compared to surveys in previous years. There are now over 300,000 children, between the ages of 10 to 15 alone, who are unhappy with their lives. Experts have warned that children who are unhappy with their lives at the age of 14 are “significantly more likely” than their peers to display symptoms of mental illness by the age of 17.
There has been a rise in the number of children being diagnosed with mental health problems. According to recent statistics, as many as 1 in 6 children aged 5-16 are likely to have a mental health problem. The most common mental health problems in children are generalised anxiety disorder (GAD), depression, and eating disorders – these are also becoming prevalent in younger age groups. For example, eating disorders were previously common among 16 to 19 year olds, but are now prevalent in children as young as 8 or 9. Similarly, anxiety and depression are becoming much more common in children than ever before. In the last three years, the likelihood of young people having a mental health problem has increased by 50%. While the coronavirus pandemic has likely been a catalyst, the decline in children’s happiness began well before the virus took over their lives. Essex University research measured a ‘significant decline in children’s happiness over the decade’ before the COVID-19 pandemic struck in early 2020.
The “rise” in children’s mental health may be partially due to them now having the language and understanding to be able to talk about these issues, which previous generations lacked
However, this could also be a moral panic due to the fact that there is now a higher focus on children’s wellbeing than there has been in previous generations. It could be that the happiness of children has fluctuated every few years throughout history but we lack the data to back it up – for example, there was little research into the wellbeing of children during world wars, although global events likely affected their happiness as much as the pandemic does now. Sociologists argue that we now live in a “cult of childhood” as there is a much higher focus on the “golden age” of childhood that in any other period of history. Furthermore, as shown by the OUP, children now have the vocabulary to talk about their mental health and wellbeing, which they probably lacked a few decades ago. The “rise” in children’s mental health may be partially due to them now having the language and understanding to be able to talk about these issues, which previous generations lacked. It’s important to consider these factors when looking at the ‘decline’ of children’s happiness, as it may be due to an increase in research and a greater understanding of wellbeing.
Children are also more resilient that may be expected and, while more funding should certainly be funnelled into mental health resources, most are likely to ‘bounce back.’
While children chose ‘anxiety’ as the word of the year, teachers chose the word “resilience” for 2021. This is supported by the Society’s Good Childhood Report, which found that most children have shown “great resilience” in the face of the pandemic. It also found that – in spite of children being unhappy in other areas of life – most children were happy with their family, health, and friends. This suggests that rising numbers of anxiety among children may be linked to the coronavirus pandemic and are likely to decline as the pandemic and its effects on daily life recede. Children are also more resilient that may be expected and, while more funding should certainly be funnelled into mental health resources, most are likely to ‘bounce back.’
“Vax” was chosen by the Oxford English Dictionary as the overall word of the year, as it ‘injected itself into the bloodstream of the English language’ during the pandemic.