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Clean bill of health for 'toxic' children

Claims that children are suffering from a toxic lifestyle of bad food, poor conversation and a lack of reading are overblown, according to the president of the UK Literacy Association.

Jackie Marsh opened the annual conference of the National Association for the Teaching of English in Manchester by saying that childhood was not in crisis.

Professor Marsh said that the recent "moral panic" over children's lifestyles overestimated changes in their lives, while underplaying the educative value of new technologies. Her comments came six months after 110 leading educationists wrote to a national newspaper complaining of the poisonous effects of junk food, marketing, over-competitive schooling and electronic entertainment.

Earlier last year, Sue Palmer, a former headteacher, wrote in her book Toxic Childhood that these ingredients were making children harder to teach.

Professor Marsh, of Sheffield University, agreed that concerns about over-assessment were valid, but said: "Some of the complaints seemed to conflate a number of issues into what I feel is a moral panic around childhood."

Professor Marsh interviewed 1,852 parents and carers of children aged from birth to six for a study on children's experience of technology. She found that they were not spending all their time on the computer or in front of the TV.

The average amount of screen time reported was two hours six minutes, but children spent the same period each day playing with their toys and a further two hours writing, drawing, playing outside or reading and pretending to read.

Professor Elaine Millard, incoming chair of NATE, said the campaign to change modern childhood appeared to spring from some people's personal dislike of "the internet and aspects of popular culture".

But Ms Palmer said that her book was not anti-technology and that evidence such as the recent Unicef report, which said that Britain was home to the Western world's least happy children, needed to be taken seriously. "It is not moral panic to point out that if our children are unhappy I we should be looking for reasons," she said.

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