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Last Updated: Tuesday, 12 September 2006, 19:05 GMT 20:05 UK
Is modern life ruining childhood?
Miserable boy
Depression is rising among children
A group of experts has warned that childhood is being poisoned by junk culture with children increasingly suffering from mental and behavioural problems, and substance abuse and violence on the increase.

But what is it about modern life that has got people worried?

SUE PALMER, AUTHOR OF TOXIC CHILDHOOD

Sue Palmer argues that the nature of play has changed, with outdoor activities replaced by screen time indoors.

We're surrounding children with the anxieties that we have about the world
Michael Morpurgo

"What's happened is a sort of sedentary, screen-based existence has crept up on children. They used to be free-range and now they're practically battery children, living indoors, experiencing through the medium of a screen.

"And that, along with the food that they're eating, many of them in great quantities now, actually is inhibiting brain development."

AKASH KAMBOJ, 13, FROM SOUTHALL, MIDDLESEX

Only child Akash, who is a pupil in Southall, Middlesex, believes children can make the correct choices but need encouragement.

"I normally eat a lot of rice and curries. Most of the time I have cereals and a slice of toast for breakfast but sometimes when I am late for school, I skip breakfast and buy a sausage roll on the way," he said.

"I think it's important to encourage children to eat different foods. For school dinners, I normally eat pasta and a bowl of fruit but some of my friends have chips.

I think they [the experts] should let us speak for ourselves
Akash Kamboj

"I have a computer at home which has a child guard on it and on average, I spend no more than hour on it - that's my choice because I am an outdoor person.

"I walk to school, I like football, bike riding, cricket and I play rugby at the weekend. I also like to read - JK Rowling is my favourite author.

"I do like brand names but I don't feel I have to have the latest trainers. However, I am quite fashionable, I just try to mix and match my clothes. Every month my parents buy me something new.

"I do feel the pressure sometimes when I have to complete an assignment on time but I think they [the experts] should let us speak for ourselves."

MICHAEL MORPURGO, FORMER CHILDREN'S LAUREATE

Michael Morpurgo said new technology had "opened the world up massively" for those who used it intelligently but was no substitute for first-hand experience, which was something children were increasingly being deprived of.

"They cannot go out and play because you mustn't talk to strangers, you mustn't play in the street, you mustn't go near water.

"We're surrounding children with the anxieties that we have about the world.

"What is utterly extraordinary is that this is the safest time we've ever had and all we're doing, it seems to me, is creating greater anxiety so that our children are retreating into the house, where of course entertainment now is vastly more interesting than it ever was."

Artwork of Lara Croft game
Computer games are no substitute for real experiences

He said children were under too much pressure and needed to be given more space to develop at their own pace.

"We cannot do anything about the speed of life. We cannot turn clocks back or any of that nonsense but what we can do is simply not encourage the rush and encourage the rush that somehow children have to be these producers very young.

"We really need to stop corralling them and give them the time and the room to grow. We don't need to impose this speed on them as fast as we're doing it, that's really what I'm saying, and that can happen in the home or within the school."

And while activities such as computer games could be sophisticated and creative, he said children needed "real play" rather than "virtual tree-climbing" or "virtual conker-playing".

"I think scarred knees are rather good."

FAVDOWSA ALI, 13, FROM GREENFORD, MIDDLESEX

Favdowsa has two older sisters and a younger brother, who is nearly four. She says she is not affected by mass marketing.

"I am not into fashion, when I go out with my friends they all wear fashionable clothes and know what's in and what's out.

"I think fashion is a bit superficial. Some people think if they wear these clothes then people will treat them differently.

it does not matter what you wear people should judge you on who you are
Favdowsa Ali

"But it does not matter what you wear, people should judge you on who you are - anyone who judges you that way is wrong.

"I like to have a tuna sandwich and occasionally a baked potato with baked beans for school dinners but most of the others [pupils] go for pizza and chips.

"Every time they head for the junk food, I think: why are they feeding us this if they want us to learn?

"I have a computer at home but I do not have access to the internet so I use it for about an hour for my homework. I live in a quiet road so I usually ride my bike or take my brother to the park and read.

"Now that I am in Year Nine my teachers are already talking about projects I am going to have to do in the future but I feel I can handle the pressure."

BARONESS SUSAN GREENFIELD, ROYAL INSTITUTION DIRECTOR

Neuroscientist Baroness Susan Greenfield is concerned that elements essential to brain development, such as first-hand experiences, interaction with adults, opportunities for play and the time and mental space to process information and be creative are being eroded by the pace of modern life.

She said research had shown 11-year-olds measured in cognitive tests were now scoring on average "about two to three years below what they were 15 years ago".

Children may not have the conceptual framework adults have to evaluate what's booming and buzzing at them from the screen
Baroness Susan Greenfield

And she warned children's brains may be simply less able to cope than adults' with the bombardment of electronic images they face from the media, advertising and entertainment.

She said: "Children may not have the conceptual framework adults have to evaluate what's booming and buzzing at them from the screen."

She questioned claims that screen-based activities such as computer games were creative pastimes for children, saying they did not foster the imagination as much as reading books or being told a story.

She warned that if children did not develop the concentration skills required by reading, they could face problems at school, a factor she suggested could be partly to blamed for the rise in the number of children with ADHD.

"I don't necessarily want to pose as a Luddite but what I would like to have is a national debate and we're starting this with an all-party group in the Lords on how we can harness the technologies to deliver what people want their kids to be and I think we're facing a very exciting challenge but we have to be proactive.

"We cannot just walk into it and assume everything will shake down OK."




SEE ALSO
Young 'failed' on mental health
20 Jun 06 |  Health



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