• New research shows many rich nations still have room for improvement when it comes to ensuring policies and social contexts lead to children's well-being – and COVID-19 has exaggerated many divides.
  • Children in Nordic countries generally have the highest rates of well-being, but Mexico and Romania have among the highest levels of life satisfaction.
  • Many more children with low levels of life satisfaction feel they lack a support network. Body image also has a role to play.
  • There are signs that some countries are regressing – particularly following the pandemic – and will struggle to meet their commitments to the Sustainable Development Goals.

Living in a wealthy nation is no guarantee of happiness. Even before the COVID-19 crisis created greater divides, the daily lives of millions of children in the richest countries fell far short of a good childhood.

No matter the wealth of these countries, better health or education is not universal. Many children suffer from stress, anxiety and depression, lag behind their peers at school, and are physically unwell. And, according to new research from the United Nations Children’s Fund, UNICEF, even the best-performing countries have room for significant improvement when it comes to ensuring consistently high child well-being.

The latest UNICEF Innocenti Report Card measures 41 countries against three main categories: mental well-being, covering life satisfaction and suicide rates; physical health including rates of obesity and child mortality; and skills, both academic and social.

What is the World Economic Forum doing about the coronavirus outbreak?

Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic requires global cooperation among governments, international organizations and the business community, which is at the centre of the World Economic Forum’s mission as the International Organization for Public-Private Cooperation.

Since its launch on 11 March, the Forum’s COVID Action Platform has brought together 1,667 stakeholders from 1,106 businesses and organizations to mitigate the risk and impact of the unprecedented global health emergency that is COVID-19.

The platform is created with the support of the World Health Organization and is open to all businesses and industry groups, as well as other stakeholders, aiming to integrate and inform joint action.

As an organization, the Forum has a track record of supporting efforts to contain epidemics. In 2017, at our Annual Meeting, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) was launched – bringing together experts from government, business, health, academia and civil society to accelerate the development of vaccines. CEPI is currently supporting the race to develop a vaccine against this strand of the coronavirus.

How rich countries stack up on child well-being

children kids child youth index poverty physical health mental body image success countries comparison rich nations poor nations
Children's mental and physical well-being, academic and social skills.
Image: UNICEF

As the table above shows, the top-performing countries against these measures may not be that surprising to many. A strong track record in mental well-being and skills places the Netherlands at the top of the table, with other regularly well-performing Nordic nations clustered not far behind.

What may be less obvious, though, is how disrupted this hierarchy becomes when looking at children’s life satisfaction.

Fifteen-year-olds were asked how satisfied they felt with their life on a scale from 0 to 10. In all countries, most children were reasonably happy with their lives, scoring five and above.

children kids child youth index poverty physical health mental body image success countries comparison rich nations poor nations
Life satisfaction rates in each country.
Image: UNICEF

While 90% of children in the Netherlands reported a score over the halfway point, kids in Mexico and Romania were not far behind.

The report cautions that while it is encouraging many children are happy with their lives, there are still many that are struggling. In 12 of the 41 countries less than three-quarters of children aged 15 have a high life satisfaction.

It highlights research in the UK showing that, compared to children with moderate or high levels of satisfaction, children with low life satisfaction were eight times more likely to report family conflict. They were also five times as likely to be bullied and more than twice as likely not to look forward to school.

Support networks

Compared to children happy with their lives, far fewer children with low life satisfaction felt that they had people who supported them. Almost a quarter of them said they didn’t feel safe at home.

children kids child youth index poverty physical health mental body image success countries comparison rich nations poor nations
Youth suicide rate per country.
Image: UNICEF

Good relationships are crucial for children – those with more supportive families have better mental well-being.

Although about child mental health across rich countries is patchy, suicide is one of the most common causes of death for adolescents aged 15 to 19.

The shape of mental health

Body image is highlighted as a key factor influencing well-being and self-confidence. And being “too fat” or “too thin” bothers a lot of teenagers: more than half of those asked in Poland are unhappy with their weight. Girls in particular are prone to thinking they are overweight despite tipping the scales healthily. Body image is also far more closely linked to life satisfaction for girls than it is for boys.

children kids child youth index poverty physical health mental body image success countries comparison rich nations poor nations
Body dissatisfaction per country.
Image: UNICEF

Still a way to go

Many countries need to make significant improvements if they are going to deliver on their commitments to the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. And following the pandemic, there are worrying signs of regression, particularly in areas such as immunization, learning and mental health, UNICEF warns.