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Cellphones Or School? What Makes Kids Around The World Happy

Kids in Cape Town socialize as they walk to school. Children in South Africa often don't get to play outside by themselves because of the high rate of violent crimes in some areas.

What's bugging children around the world?

Kids in South Africa say they're not very happy about their opportunities to play safely outdoors. Kids in Algeria and Ethiopia say they don't get enough time to play, in general, because they are needed at home to help with siblings and chores. Kids in European countries are less satisfied with their time in school than those in some African countries.

Those are among the results of the Children's Worlds study — a survey of more than 50,000 children, ages 8 to 12. It's "the most wide-ranging and diverse study ever conducted internationally on children's lives from their own perspectives," wrote the Jacobs Foundation, a Zurich-based nonprofit that published the report Wednesday.

Researchers surveyed kids in 15 countries — including very rich ones, such as Norway, and very poor ones, such as Ethiopia. The children answered questions about family, home life, friendships, money, school life and views on children's rights.

Not surprisingly, kids in poor countries have far fewer material possessions than those who live in rich places. For example, only about 1 percent of Ethiopian kids have their own devices to play music.

But all the children in the study, whether rich or poor, generally reported a high level of happiness and satisfaction with their lives.

In fact, sometimes children in developing countries are happier than their wealthier counterparts, especially when it comes to school. In Nepal, for instance, kids enjoy school more than those in developed countries, like Norway. (Note: The survey was done before the recent earthquake.)

"This may reflect a view among children in richer countries, where education is a well-established right, that school is a chore," researchers wrote in the report, "while among poorer countries, where access to education is more recent and less taken-for-granted, children perceive the opportunity to access it much more positively."

In general, school is a more enticing place for kids in poor countries, says Asher Ben-Arieh, a researcher at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, who helped lead the study. Limited access to the Internet and cellphones makes it harder for kids in developing countries to have and sustain friendships outside school.

The purpose of the survey, Ben-Arieh says, is to improve children's well-being by creating awareness about kids' lives around the world. The report contains important messages for policymakers, mental health workers, parents "and all those concerned with improving children's quality of life," he says.

Childhood is often seen as a point of passage to adulthood rather than a critical stage of its own, Ben-Arieh says. Children have different perspectives than their parents, "and both are important," he says.

Here are a few other key findings from the study:

  • Overall happiness is the same for boys and girls.
  • Compared with girls, boys feel more satisfied with their bodies and appearances in Europe and South Korea, but not in the African and South American countries surveyed.
  • About 60 percent of children in Nepal live with their parents and grandparents, while fewer than 10 percent of children in the U.K., Norway and Israel live in these multigenerational homes.
  • Children in some countries, including Algeria, Nepal and South Africa, spend much more time caring for siblings and other family members than do children in richer countries, such as Germany, Turkey and South Korea.

The set of data published last week includes surveys from children between ages 10 and 12. Data for children ages 8 to 10 will be reported later this year.

Francesca Lunzer Kritz is a freelance health care writer whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, Self and other national publications.

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