Childhood has always been a disputed territory, its true geography quickly forgotten as we grow older, replaced by an adult-imagined universe. But there appears to be a growing consensus that childhood today is in a peculiarly parlous state. In a letter to the Daily Telegraph this week, a powerful collection of experts including Philip Pullman, Susan Greenfield and Penelope Leach argued that the fast-moving, hyper-competitive nature of our society is seriously damaging children’s mental and emotional wellbeing. They suggested that junk food, computer games and constant testing in schools were directly responsible for the well-documented escalation in childhood depression.
So is childhood genuinely in such crisis? Is the modern world inimical to happy and healthy development? Certainly, children growing up today are subject to increasing containment and surveillance, and the tyranny of consumer and moral choice. The definition of maturity itself is in flux as the traditional adult milestones of courtship, marriage and procreation recede, and our popular culture reaches back to youth in order to sustain itself.
And yet our panic about childhood betrays a deep ambivalence, too. Our children are in danger, fattened on fast food, corrupted by commerce, traumatised by testing. And at the same time, other children are dangerous, malevolent beneath hooded tops, chaotic in the classroom, bestial in the bedroom. Before we can have the public debate on child-rearing that the letter writers call for, we need to unpick which of our anxieties truly reflect the reality of the situation.
Take the electronic media, one of the corrupting influences cited. Media-related child panics have a rich history. Plato proposed to ban the works of the dramatic poets from his Republic for fear that they might lead students astray. And it’s worth remembering that the imaginative life of children is full of violence, as anyone who’s spent any time in a playground could tell you.
But today’s concerns exist in the context of broader adult unease about the proliferation of technology, particularly in the home, and the challenge to adult authority that it represents. Three quarters of children in the UK now have their own television, while one third have their own computer. And they are frequently more competent navigators of new media than their parents are.
There is no doubt that children’s access to media, and the prevalence and extremity of sex and violence in such media, has vastly increased. And a growing body of research links electronic media with a medley of developmental horrors. But some in the field believe that many of these studies are flawed because they view violence as an objective category and fail to investigate what audiences themselves define as violent. David Buckingham, professor of education at London’s Institute of Education, notes that cartoons – which regularly top researchers’ lists of most violent programmes – are not generally perceived as violent by children. Research conducted by the BBC and others found that children were far more disturbed by violence seen on the news than in fictional programmes.
And the question of correlation v causality remains vexed. A Lancet review found that violent imagery was more likely to increase aggressive behaviour in children who come from violent families.
The beneficial potential of new media is seldom given much publicity either. Institute of Education research suggests that computer games can assist children’s social and educational development. Young people are using technology to make music, learn and connect with friends across the globe. Nor is the perception of computer games as unremittingly violent accurate, given that the majority of those aimed at children involve imaginative role play.
As with other aspects of child-panic, concerns about modern technology reflect a set of assumptions about what it is to be a child: that they are pure and corruptible, that they are unable to discriminate or to assess what they see with any degree of sophistication. Regulation alone risks falling back on the standard of the incompetent child. We need to engage with children and help them to develop their own strategies for coping with technology.
The National Consumer Council is doing just that in relation to marketing to children, pioneering the case for a national strategy for consumer education, building up young people’s skills by working with their interests as consumers, rather than against them. Indeed, NCC research has found that children are well aware of the false expectations generated by advertising.
The Telegraph letter describes children as being “pushed by market forces to act and dress like mini-adults”. Of course, consumer culture offers children access to areas of adult life from which they have traditionally been excluded. But the desire to get older younger is not a new one. Adulthood has always meant freedom to the child who feels restricted. What is new is that the template of adulthood presented to them is one of conspicuous consumption. It is, surely, adulthood that has been most grossly distorted by consumer culture, and reflected back to children as a venal, vapid, selfish place. Perhaps it’s adulthood rather than childhood that’s in crisis.
Our tangled agenda is again seen in the letter-writers’ insistence that children should have “real play”. But where? Underinvestment means that there are fewer open spaces for children to inhabit. And those that are left are dull and overtly safety-conscious. Our society’s profound risk aversion keeps children in their bedrooms with their dangerous computer games.
The norm of the indoor child has led not only to fear for children who do venture out – usually fear of the vastly exaggerated stranger-danger – but also to fear of them. Teenagers who congregate on street corners are seen as a nuisance and a threat. It is worth asking whether confinement is also serving an adult convenience. If children no longer regard the streets as their territory, their elders won’t be disturbed by games or gangs. Nor do car drivers have to think about lowering their speed.
Increased surveillance of children, by anxious parents or, in extremis, the police, means that young people are spending less and less time alone amusing themselves. In his book Solitude, the psychiatrist Anthony Storr made a compelling argument for why the capacity to be alone is essential to creative development. Solitude not only fosters creativity, he says, but relates to an individual’s capacity to connect with, and make manifest, their own true feelings. When the childhood experience is one of containment, what becomes of self-discovery and self-realisation?
Which leads to the core of the letter’s thesis – that modern life makes children unhappy. Children’s mental health has steeply declined in the past 25 years. An estimated 10% of five- to 15-year-olds use the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services. It is certainly the case that, for adults and children alike, increased affluence has not made us happier. In relation to children, experts have identified a variety of contributing factors: academic pressure, the drawn-out transition to adulthood, drug and alcohol abuse and, of course, parenting. Indeed, many argue that a crucial policy improvement would be the provision of parenting classes in school.
But more fundamentally, we can help children and adolescents develop a more coherent social identity only by allowing them genuine involvement in the world they are growing up in.
In an essay on fostering resilience, Sebastian Kraemer of the Tavistock Clinic writes: “In a world in which individuality is acknowledged, even celebrated, resilience is best understood as the experience of agency: that what you do or say makes a difference, that it is worthwhile making plans for your life, that you are not simply a helpless victim of forces beyond your control.” But children, he argues, are still relatively powerless, “at the mercy of our adult terror of helplessness”.
“When we talk about children we talk about everyone, yet there is … a subtle but pervasive contempt for children, often disguised with condescending words, as if they were a different species … There are still far too many neglected children, at all levels of society … After sexism and racism, we still have to confront ‘childism’.”
The deterioration in children’s mental health is profoundly alarming, and it is right that parents and policy-makers should be encouraged to discuss it. Growing up has always charted dangerous territory, but what is occurring now is less of a crisis in childhood and more of a crisis in how adults view children. And this debate is to be welcomed if it results in a shift in focus on to children’s own capacity to cope with the challenges of modern life and the ways in which adults can collaborate with them to make those capacities stronger.
Hopefully, it will also help us to untangle what there genuinely is to fear about modern childhood, from what relates to our own adult discombobulation at the state of the modern world. It is telling, for example, that for all our conspicuous concern about children, it took a campaigning chef to get the nation talking about junk food. Likewise, children will continue to be overtested at school for as long as we support an education policy that views them as units of future human capital.
Above all, let’s start talking to children rather than about them. Then perhaps they can provide us with some of the solutions themselves.
by Libby Brooks of The Guardian (original link here)
Note: Article from NYJC Prelim 2011