Worlds of Influence

Understanding what shapes child well-being in rich countries

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The world of the child

Worlds of Influence

Worlds of Influence

Understanding what shapes child well-being in rich countries

Evidence from 41 OECD and EU countries gives us insight into the factors that affect child well-being in rich countries. This report reveals children’s experiences against the backdrop of their country’s policies and social, educational, economic and environmental contexts and ranks countries on both the outcomes and conditions for child well-being, applying a multi-level framework unpacking the worlds of influence affecting children today.

Report Card 16


Worlds of Influence:

Understanding what shapes child well-being in rich countries

A new look at children from the world’s richest countries offers a mixed picture of their health, skills and happiness. For far too many, issues such as poverty, exclusion and pollution threaten their mental well-being, physical health and opportunities to develop skills. Even countries with good social, economic and environmental conditions are a long way from meeting the targets set in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Focused and accelerated action is needed if these goals are to be met.

The evidence from 41 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and European Union (EU) countries tells its own story: from children’s chances of survival, growth and protection, to whether they are learning and feel listened to, to whether their parents have the support and resources to give their children the best chance for a healthy, happy childhood. This report reveals children’s experiences against the backdrop of their country’s policies and social, educational, economic and environmental contexts.

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In determining outcomes, the Report Card researchers considered two questions:

  1. How do children experience their lives in the present?
  2. And what are their prospects for the future?

These questions are related. For example, having good health leads to both current and future well-being. To address these questions, we focus on indicators that directly describe the well-being outcomes of the child. It consists of three dimensions:

Mental well-being: This includes both positive and negative aspects of a child’s mental well-being – life satisfaction and suicide rates.

Physical health: This includes rates of overweight and obesity, which affect children now and in future, and child mortality.

Skills: This dimension focuses both on academic skills – proficiency in reading and mathematics; and social skills – feeling able to make friends easily.

The rationale for the inclusion of these components, indicators and their sources is explained later in this section. We were unable to include 3 of the 41 countries – Israel, Mexico and Turkey – in the league table of well-being outcomes due to shortages of data (see note to Figure 3). However, these three countries are included, where possible, throughout the rest of the report. The Netherlands ranks highest in the league table of outcomes, followed by Denmark and Norway. These three countries along with Switzerland and Finland are in the top third of rankings in all three outcomes. Chile, Bulgaria and the United States of America are at the bottom of the table. Only Chile, the United States and Malta are in the bottom third of rankings for each of the three well-being outcomes. 




League Table: Outcomes

World of the child

How do direct experiences differentiate child well-being within countries?


We start with ‘the world of the child’: the activities in which children are involved and their relationships with people close to them such as parents, peers and teachers. Children’s activities inform us about their daily lives. These activities may not always be chosen by children and may reflect the priorities of others, for example, their parents. Indeed, children spend substantial amounts of time in compulsory schooling. In 2018, across OECD countries, the average compulsory instruction time per pupil in lower secondary school ranged from 766 hours per year in Slovenia and Sweden to 1,200 hours per year in Denmark.

International comparative studies of children’s daily lives outside of school are rare. We use new data on children’s activities in 15 rich countries from the latest wave of the Children’s Worlds survey. Children were asked how often during the last week they had done 15 different activities – for example, helping around the home, doing homework, using a computer and spending time playing outside. We were interested to see which of these activities were linked with children’s sense of well-being, based on how happy they had felt in the past two weeks. Here we choose happiness rather than life satisfaction as an indicator because it is likely to be more closely associated with factors that may vary over time, such as activities. The strongest link found was between happiness and time spent with family. This is consistent with other research showing the importance of family relationships for children. There were also strong links between happiness and the frequency of playing outside. In comparison, other factors such as social media use and doing housework were weakly, and less often significantly, linked with happiness.

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World around the child

How do immediate surroundings differentiate child well-being within countries?


The ‘world around the child’ consists of a range of factors within the child’s environment that can trickle down to influence their well-being. These include the networks of the adults closest to the child, household resources and the quality of the local neighbourhood.  

Networks around the child  

The networks of relations around children affect their well-being even though they do not always experience them directly. In contrast to the relationships described in the ‘world of the child’, which referred only to relations involving the child, networks refer to connections established by the adults closest to the child – especially by the parents. They include: the family support network, and parents’ relationships with work and with their child’s school. Unfortunately, we are unable to link these connections with data on child well-being outcomes as information on networks is not available within the same international surveys.  

Support for parents

Families that lack social support networks may find it more difficult to cope with adversity. This can negatively affect children’s well- being. That is why the presence of informal support for families through social networks is often seen as a protective factor for children’s healthy development. Figure 19 shows the proportion of parents who say that they would be able to seek support from a family member, friend or service provider if they needed help to look after their children. The chart is ranked by the proportion of parents who said that they would be able to seek support from either a family member or a friend. Only a small proportion of parents said they would be unable to seek help from either of these sources. This ranges from less than 1 in every 100 parents in Poland, Bulgaria, Greece, Slovenia and Lithuania to more than 10 in every 100 parents in Luxembourg and Belgium.


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World at large

Why do some countries have higher child well-being than others?


The world of the child and the world around the child allowed us to see how well-being varies between children within the same country. Yet, children’s experience of childhood does not exist in a social vacuum – it is rooted in the society in which they live. Therefore, we now broaden our focus to the world at large, understood as ’national conditions that support child well-being’ – the outermost levels of our framework – to see why some countries have higher child well-being than others.


Policies include benefits and services delivered to children and their families that can influence current and future child well-being. We focus on three policy areas – social, education and health policy – which are interrelated and may influence one another. For example, while low birthweight is treated as an indicator of health policy, it is also influenced by policies aimed at tackling poverty.


The national context that supports child well-being includes economic, social and environmental components. These components may affect children directly. For example, air pollution can damage their health. Or the components may affect them indirectly. For example, parental unemployment can put a strain on household resources and relationships, which can, in turn, affect child well-being. In this section, we deliberately choose broad indicators that apply to the whole population for two reasons. First, they minimize the number of people missing from the data, including marginalized children, who are often invisible in surveys. Second, a clean environment, healthy economy and strong social fabric contribute to a good life for all and constitute a foundation for the well-being of current and future generations.



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League Table: Conditions


Based on the evidence presented in this report, UNICEF calls for all high-income countries to act on three fronts:

Consult children: Improve children’s well-being through a shift in thinking

Governments should strengthen the opportunities for children’s voices to be systematically heard. This can be achieved through child-friendly, public policy consultations; ensuring all children know their rights; and creating new ways to take account of children’s views in schools, communities and nations. Children’s participation in society is part of consensus- building between generations on what matters most.

Connect policies: Improve children’s well-being through an integrated approach

An integrated approach to child well-being means acknowledging the links and trade-offs between child well-being outcomes and national conditions and coordinating public policies appropriately. To be effective and efficient, child well-being interventions need an integrated approach that recognizes how policy actions at one level will influence another. Governments typically assess the economic impact of legislation and policy. They should also consider routinely incorporating an equivalent assessment of their impact on children’s well-being.

Create strong foundations: Sustain improvements for child well-being through future-proofing

Governments must plan and prepare for the future to ensure that improvements in child well-being are sustained. This means choosing policies that set a strong foundation for children and for society as a whole. The Sustainable Development Goals provide an excellent basis for intensifying and accelerating improvements in child well-being globally. The evidence in this report suggests a range of actions that are essential to achieving these goals, including:

  1. Taking new and decisive action to reduce income inequality and poverty, and ensuring that all children have access to the resources they need.
  2. Improving access to affordable and high-quality early years childcare for all children.
  3. Improving mental health services for children and adolescents.
  4. Implementing and expanding family-friendly policies related to the workplace.
  5. Reducing the stubbornly high levels of air pollution, among a range of measures to protect the natural environment.
  6. Strengthening efforts to protect children from preventable diseases, including reversing recent falls in many countries in measles immunization.

These are steps that every government can take to improve the lives of children in the present and the future. Every child deserves a good childhood.


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