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Measuring child well-being in disruptive times

We live in disruptive times. The conditions in which children are growing up are changing quickly, evolving into futures that are difficult to imagine. What does this mean for how we measure their well-being? Ultimately, the discussions revolve around three fundamental questions in the data chain:

Why are we measuring? What are we measuring? How are we measuring?

The answers to all of these questions are highly interrelated. And the answers need to evolve with the world around us – a world of opportunities for children and youth.

First, why are we measuring? A related question is, for whom?

One of the most common answers to this question is, we are measuring to influence public policy decisions. This makes a lot of sense in a world where public policy is the difference-maker in the extent and distribution of outcomes affecting child and youth well-being. UNICEF research has made this clear, including through our Report Card series for high-income countries.

But in a world where the role and influence of public policy are shifting, and shaped by societal values that are changing, are we measuring to engage citizens as well as policy-makers in debates and understanding? Are we empowering children and youth to help decide the intentions and uses of our measurement projects? 

UNICEF Canada is in the midst of prototyping a Canadian Index of Child and Youth Well-being, and one of the aims identified by our advisors is to bring Canadians together, united around common goals for children. Another aim is to enable all children and youth to achieve their well-being goals.

What are we measuring?

There is no common, accepted definition of child and youth well-being as a conceptual framework for measurement.

Research evidence about what influences child and youth outcomes is heavily privileged in what we measure. The problem is that research knowledge keeps changing. What we thought was important sometimes turns out not to be.

As well, much of what we measure is anchored in the past, shaped by decisions made long ago about what kind of data were important to collect. Free play and sleep hygiene are examples of indicators that are just starting to show up in conceptual frameworks that may be more attuned to childhood today.

But what about childhood tomorrow? Are we measuring for the dim future, or for the evidenced past?

And what happens when we ask kids themselves to define a vision to measure? Here is what one young girl said, as part of UNICEF Canada’s work with young people to understand what supports their well-being, and what a society that does that would look like:

“Unicorns running around everywhere.”

Now, that is difficult to frame and measure.

When we ask adolescents the same questions, it’s remarkable how often a variation of this comes up:

“My cat makes me happy.”

The presence of a pet or the number and quality of supportive relationships might be easier to frame and measure than unicorns.

But our takeaway here is that when we ask kids what well-being looks and feels like, it takes us into different domains and indicators than some of the conceptual frameworks in use.

Young people on our Index advisory group said that we can measure well-being with one ultimate indicator, to which all others might contribute: children and youth feel valued and heard. That sounds like an indicator that will be sustainable into the future.

How are we measuring?

While the data landscape is undergoing a powerful transformation, UNICEF is focusing on how to ensure the data revolution contributes to results for children, especially the most disadvantaged.

We are told that it has never been cheaper or easier to collect and recycle data at any scale, though we have barely begun to try out new approaches.

We must challenge each other to truly create new opportunities for children all along the data chain. Are we developing and using data about children, or also data with and by children?

In an age of so-called “infobesity” and disruption, it’s time to leap from data to responsiveness and accountability.

This blog is based on Lisa Wolff’s opening remarks at the 6th Conference of the International Society for Child Indicators in Montreal, June 28-30, 2017. To find out more about how UNICEF Canada is working to measure and improve child well-being in Canada, click here

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