More than half of young people in England are having difficulty sleeping, while the proportion of those aged 11 to 16 who experience problems with eating has almost doubled since 2017, as part of a widespread post-pandemic decline in mental health, new research has shown.
A survey by NHS Digital showed more than half (57%) of young people aged 17 to 23 reported problems sleeping on three or more nights of the previous seven. It also showed more than a quarter (29%) of six- to 10-year-olds said they had problems sleeping, as did more than a third (38%) of 11- to 16-year-olds.
The data also showed that 13% of the 11- to 16-year-olds raised concerns about eating compared with just 7% four years before.
Despite a smaller increase, rates of reported difficulties with eating were higher in older age groups, which experts described as “particularly concerning”. The proportion of those aged 17 to 19 with a possible eating problem rose from 45% in 2017 to 58% in 2021.
The findings were based on three studies, in 2017, 2020 and 2021, involving 2,541 children and young people in England.
Tamsin Ford, professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of Cambridge, emphasised that the number of children reporting difficulties with eating was not the same as those diagnosed with eating disorders, and said it was not yet possible to know the reason for the sharp increases.
“It’s certainly concerning, I think the exact level in the older teenagers is particularly concerning but perhaps not that surprising when this is not eating disorders, it’s difficulties around eating,” she said. “Of course, worries about your body and body image in teenagers is known as a high-risk period, so I think the absolute level is surprising, but nobody has ever measured this before.
“It’s an increase, it should be concerning and it needs more explanation and more study. When we have got a more complete assessment and with all the background data we have on all these children and young people, including their social media use, that is something we could explore, but we can only speculate now.”
The study also showed more than half of 11- to 16-year-olds reported spending more time on social media than they meant to; 17% also admitted the number of interactions their posts received, such as likes, comments and shares, affected their mood.
One in six children in England now has a probable mental health disorder, though this figure had not changed significantly since the start of the pandemic in 2020, the study showed.
However, Ford said she was “very wary” of dismissing the stable levels of probable mental health disorders as a “bit of a blip”.
“We have done a bit of analysis around what’s happening to sub groups but I think we need to be concerned – the signs are that children’s mental health was deteriorating from this series of surveys over 20 years, before the pandemic hit,” she said. “We have now got evidence at a population level that it wasn’t a blip … some of the [online] surveys do suggest that, certainly in adults, mental health had a bit of a wobble in the first lockdown and then pretty much returned to normal.
She added: “But, of course, the people that fill those in tend to be highly educated people with access to online materials, and those living in deprivation and ethnic minority groups are under-represented.
“These are not transient issues … I think we should be very wary of dismissing this as a bit of a blip.”