A HUGE number of children in St Helens are unhappy with their looks, fuelled by bullying and social media, a new inquiry from the Children’s Society has found.

More than 3,000 primary and secondary school children took part in an online survey in 2019, as part of the St Helens Good Childhood Inquiry.

In February, prior to lockdown, the children’s charity also met more than 600 children and young people face-to-face.

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The results of this inquiry, which was commissioned by the council, have been published today.

The findings indicate that children in St Helens are happiest with their homes, their families and the amount of money and things they own.

However, 18 per cent of children indicated that they were unhappy with their appearance, with secondary aged girls particularly unhappy.

This is significantly higher than the national average of 9.7 per cent seen in the Children’s Society’s Good Childhood Report 2019.

The findings show that 30 per cent said they often worry about the way they look, while nearly a quarter agreed or strongly agreed that they often wished they looked like someone else.

Secondary aged girls were most likely to agree/strongly agree with both statements, with more than half often worrying about the way they look.

The report says appearance was frequently referenced during the inquiry.

Secondary school children highlighted the conflicting pressures girls are put under by society, their school and their peers.

“As a girl you can get judged a lot by the way you look, where you are from and where you live,” one secondary school pupil said.

“Your figure is the main one. ‘You’re fat’, ‘you’re ugly’, ‘get better skin’, ‘you have spots’, ‘wash your hair, it’s greasy’”.

Another secondary school pupil said: “If you haven’t got the ‘right’ body shape for people you get called names, for example people who aren’t really skinny get called fat but if you’re too skinny you get called anorexic.

“If you wear certain clothes that can be slightly revealing you get called a slag but if you wear clothes that cover you up you get called a nun.

“If you wear no makeup you’re ugly and don’t try, but if you wear makeup you’re overdoing.”

Some primary school children reflected on the causes of why people are made to feel unhappy with their appearance.

“Social media is bad because some people post fake pictures to make others feel insecure about themselves” one primary school child said.

“Clothes aren’t a big problem to me because they shouldn’t distinguish what type of a person you are,” another child said.

The report says many of the comments focused on the judgements young people feel are being made about them, and around comments they receive from their peers, as well as from adults in the local area.

However, it is recognised in the report that these issues are not exclusive to St Helens and are felt by many teenagers nationally.

Overall, the survey found that children in St Helens were relatively happy with their lives as a whole, althouh 9 per cent had low wellbeing, which is reflective of the national picture.

In addition, children were asked how they felt about the local area, including how safe they felt.

The majority (66 per cent) reported that they felt safe when out in the local area during the day.

However, only 33 per cent agreed that they felt safe at night. Secondary aged girls were found to be particularly unhappy with safety in the borough.

Secondary school girls also scored the lowest for overall life satisfaction.

St Helens Star: Social media was cited by children as why some people feel unhappy with their appearanceSocial media was cited by children as why some people feel unhappy with their appearance

What action is being taken in response to the St Helens Good Childhood Inquiry?

The Children’s Society has recommended that the borough commission a service tailored to supporting teenage girls with their well-being, with a focus on appearance and identity.

It is also calling on St Helens Borough Council, as well as schools, Merseyside Police, healthcare services and other local organisations, to prioritise children’s wellbeing across their work, with changes to their policy and practice that will lead directly to improvements.

The Good Childhood Inquiry provides a number of specific recommendations, including involving children more in local decision-making, expanding the provision of youth services in the borough and creating a sustainable long-term strategy to promote children’s mental health and wellbeing.

Alson, in recent months, the local Youth Council received funding from the Violence Reduction Partnership.

With support from the youth service, the Youth Council has designed and launched Grow Your Happy – an online mental health and wellbeing toolkit that provides young people with supportive resources, education about self-care and options to empower and ‘help themselves’ should they need it.

The youth service also provides one-to-one support and group work sessions aimed at supporting young people with various issues that affect their self- confidence and self -esteem while helping them to reduce their levels of anxiety and improve their overall wellbeing.

What is The Children’s Society saying?

Mark Russell, chief executive of The Children’s Society, met with young people in St Helens as part of the research.

He said: “Throughout the UK, children’s well-being has been in decline over the past decade.

“Talking and listening to children and young people is essential if we are to turn this around and radically improve their lives.

“It is hugely encouraging to see St Helens Borough Council take positive action to do just this, by engaging in conversation with thousands of children across the borough about their feelings, ideas and experiences.

“Though childhood well-being in the area is fairly typical of the rest of the UK, the borough should aspire for it to be greater.

“Addressing how children and young people, especially young girls, feel about their appearance would be a good place to start as this has a significant impact on well-being.

“We look forward to working with the council to shape positive changes in schools and the community over the coming months, to build a brighter future for all St Helens children.”

St Helens Star: Mark Russell, chief executive of The Children’s SocietyMark Russell, chief executive of The Children’s Society

What is St Helens Borough Council saying?

Cllr Anthony Burns, St Helens Borough Council’s cabinet member for public health, leisure, libraries and heritage, said: “This is one of the biggest exercises of its kind we have ever undertaken, with more than 3,000 children and young people taking part and telling us what it’s like to grow up, live and be educated in St Helens borough.

“Gaining this insight directly from young people has been invaluable.

“I like to put on record our heartfelt thanks to Mark (Russell) and his terrific team at The Children’s Society for their work on this report and for their enthusiasm and dedication in working with the council and the children of the borough to present their findings to us.

“Key areas for action, such as young people’s aspirations, community safety and opportunities for young people with special and additional needs (SEND) are embedded within strategic plans, such as the Borough Strategy, Community Safety Partnership Plan, Children’s Improvement Plan and the SEND Strategy, with a particular focus on working with vulnerable children and young people.

“The task group will continue to work with The Children’s Society to explore how our work around mental well-being, resilience and addressing the impact of body image and eating disorders can be amplified for children and young people.

“Mark is right, we should aspire for childhood wellbeing in the area to be greater and indeed we do. This will be the task group’s number one aim.”

St Helens Star: Cllr Anthony Burns, St Helens Borough Council’s cabinet member for public health, leisure, libraries and heritageCllr Anthony Burns, St Helens Borough Council’s cabinet member for public health, leisure, libraries and heritage

What is St Helens Youth Council saying?

Ben Lomas, 15, is the member of the UK Youth Parliament for St Helens, as well as being part of the St Helens Youth Council.

He is also part of a panel created to address the issues raised by the Helens Good Childhood Inquiry.

Ben said: “I am delighted that I have recently been selected to be St Helens borough’s young person representative on the Good Childhood Inquiry Panel, as representing the views of the young people of St Helens borough is a deep-rooted passion of mine.

St Helens Star: Ben Lomas, 15Ben Lomas, 15

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“I believe it’s imperative that the inquiry is fed into every level of decision making so that young people have a truly represented voice in the area, and the fact that St Helens People’s Board, council and other partners have given their backing to this inquiry is a large step forward in the right direction.

“This inquiry is intrinsically linked with the Children’s Charter for St Helens that was initiated a few years ago, because of a poem I wrote, focused on the importance of young people having their voices listened to and respected.

“The Good Childhood Inquiry will be a fantastic vehicle to drive grassroots democracy in our town and hence, I cannot wait to get to work in this exciting new role.”

To download the St Helens Good Childhood Inquiry report, click here.