World’s richest countries grappling with children’s reading and math skills, mental well-being and obesity

Suicide, unhappiness, obesity and poor social and academic skills have become far-too-common features of childhood in rich countries, as stated by the latest Report Card issued by the UNICEF Office of Research – Innocenti.

UNICEF’s Report Card Series – now running for 20 years – uses comparable national data to rank EU and OECD countries on childhood. Worlds of Influence: Understanding what shapes child well-being in rich countries uses pre-COVID-19 data and features a league table according to children’s mental and physical health and academic and social skill-set. Based on these indicators the Netherlands, Denmark and Norway rank as the top three places to be a child among wealthy countries.

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“Many of the world’s richest countries – which have the resources they need to provide good childhoods for all – are failing children,” said Gunilla Olsson, Director of UNICEF Innocenti.

“Unless governments take rapid and decisive action to protect child wellb-eing as part of their pandemic responses, we can continue to expect soaring child poverty rates, deteriorating mental and physical health, and a deepening skill divide among children. COVID-19 related support for families and children are woefully inadequate. More must be done to provide children with a safe and happy childhood – now.”


Mental health: In most countries, less than four-fifths of children report being satisfied with their lives. Turkey has the lowest rate of life satisfaction at 53 per cent, after Japan and the UK. Children who have less supportive families and those who are bullied have notably poorer mental health.

Lithuania has the highest rate of adolescent suicide – a major reason of death among 15-19-year olds in high income countries – after New Zealand and Estonia.

Physical health: Obesity and overweight rates among children have raised in last few years. Around 1 in 3 children in every countries are either obese or overweight, with rates in Southern Europe also sharply rising. In over a quarter of high income countries child mortality is yet more than 1 per 1,000.

Skills: On average 40 per cent of children in all OECD and EU countries do not have basic reading and mathematics skills by age 15. Children in Bulgaria, Romania and Chile are the least proficient in these skills. Estonia, Ireland and Finland the most proficient. In most countries, at least 1 in 5 children lack confidence in their social skills to make new friends. Children in Chile, Japan and Iceland are the least confident in this area.

The report also contains data on clear areas of development in child well-being. On average, 95 per cent of pre-school aged children are now enrolled in organized learning programmes, and the number of young people aged 15-19 not in education, employment or training has denied in 30 out of 37 countries. Yet, these important achievements are at risk of falling back because of the effect of COVID-19.

Countries are also ranked based on their policies that support child well-being and other factors including the economy, society and environment. Norway, Iceland and Finland have the highest-ranking policies and context to support child well-being. On average, countries spend less than 3 per cent of their GDP on family and child policies.

“In times of crisis and calm, families need supportive governments and workplaces in order to raise the next generation of happy and healthy citizens,” said Fayaz King, Deputy Executive Director at UNICEF. “An investment in children is a direct investment in our future.”

Because of the COVID-19 outbreak, in the first half of this year, most of the countries covered in the report kept schools closed for over 100 days while strict stay-at-home policies were also implemented. The report notes that loss of family members and friends, anxiety, stay-at-home restrictions, lack of support, school closures, the balancing of work and family life, poor access to healthcare, combined with the economic loss caused by the pandemic are catastrophic for children’s well-being, affecting their mental and physical health, and their development.

Before the COVID-19 outbreak the average relative child poverty rate across the 41 countries was 20 per cent. With GDP expected to fall over a two-year period in almost all of these countries, unless governments take immediate remedial actions child poverty will rise.

“As the economic, educational and social fallout of the pandemic continues to take hold, without concerted effort, there will be a worsening, devastating impact on the well-being of today’s children, their families and the societies they live in,” said Olsson. “But these risks do not have to become the reality, if governments take decisive action now to protect children’s well-being.”

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