Is there justification for the moral panic about children growing up faster and more brutally? Jon Slater reports
Today's kids are out of control. From schoolboy murderers, to playground bullies and false accusations against teachers, the public is regaled with horror stories about the state of the nation's youth.
Children are growing up faster than ever before. Bombarded by images of sex and weaned on a diet of reality TV, their skirts are getting shorter as they are pushed prematurely towards adulthood.
Add a spending power their parents could only dream of and a refusal to leave their video games and go and play outside, and you have a fair summary of the popular images of children in 2004.
But are children growing up today really so much worse than those of 10, 20 or 30 years ago? And if they are then what can we do about it?
Much of the moral panic generated by sections of the media is exaggerated or based on little more than anecdotal evidence.
David Bell, chief inspector of schools, told the Sunday Telegraph last summer: "It is difficult to get statistical evidence on what is happening across the country, but if you talk to a lot of primary headteachers, as I do, they will say that youngsters appear less well prepared for school than ever before."
This translated into the headline "Schools chief: Parents have raised worst generation yet" and led to the tabloids branding today's youngsters "stone-age kids".
A rueful Mr Bell later told the Guardian: "What I really wanted to say is that the gap between the children arriving at school who do well and those who do badly is increasing and that is worrying."
Indeed, the first national test results of five-year-olds, published in June, showed that more than half scored better than expected in personal, social and emotional development.
But while it would be easy to put young people's bad image down to an overactive media which enjoys whipping up moral crises, it would be wrong to ignore the fact that childhood has undergone major changes during the past few decades.
Three trends in particular - new technology, increasing commercialisation and the changing nature of family life - have had a big impact on children's lives.
Take technology. The National Children's Bureau is concerned that many young people no longer have adequate, safe outside space in which they can play. Instead, young people's recreational activities revolve around the television, the computer and video games.
A survey of 750 parents carried out last year found that a third of children up to the age of three had a television in their bedroom. The figure for under-sixes was 60 per cent.
This change in children's lifestyles has obvious health implications and means many are exposed to images of sex and violence at increasingly early ages. It is also being exploited by a commercial world which increasingly sees children as a key market.
MPs recently censured Walkers, the crisp manufacturer, for attempting to use advertising to harness this pester power to undermine parents' control over their children's nutrition.
Companies have used pester power for a long time. What has changed is the quantity and sophistication of the marketing and the extent to which children are exposed to it. Delivering the King's education lecture earlier this year, Professor Stephen Ball, of London university's institute of education, argued that "all aspects of the lives of children are being opened up to commercial exploitation".
But arguably the greatest impact of the market economy on children is not the growth in advertising aimed at them. It is the indirect effect it has on family life.
Jane Goodall, the world's leading primatologist, has found that chimpanzees who have mothers who are prepared to spend time with them are those most likely to grow up to be socially successful.
But increasingly, our society demands that parents do the opposite. In the past 30 years, the UK has transformed from a country based on the traditional nuclear family into one where many parents struggle to make enough time for their children.
Those commentators and politicians who bemoan the state of the nation's youth are quick to point the finger of blame for this phenomenon at single parents and the breakdown of traditional values. The often unspoken suggestion is that if mothers still remained at home everything would be OK.
This position not only ignores the advances of feminism, but also economic reality. Even for dual-parent families, the fact of life is that both parents often need to work - and the hours they are expected to work are getting longer.
A government survey carried out two years ago found that one in six employees works more than 60 hours per week.
The figure for women was one in eight - more than double the number in 2000. Jobs in the retail sector, often associated with female employment, were particularly likely to involve long hours.
John Bangs, National Union of Teachers head of education and equal opportunities, worries that parents from all walks of life find it increasingly difficult to spend quality time with their children.
"Families struggling to make ends meet and the career-minded middle class have problems doing things that were previously taken for granted, such as sitting down for a meal together in the evening," he says.
"The difference for middle-class parents is that at least they can catch up on some of that time by paying for a holiday."
Indeed, recent reports suggested that some children spend so much time eating convenience food separately from their parents that they start school unable to use a knife and fork.
The competing time pressures facing modern parents do more than create an over-reliance on chicken nuggets. They also persuade many parents to use new technology as a way of keeping their offspring occupied, despite evidence that this has a negative effect on both their educational and social development.
Research shows that while young children benefit from a small amount of educational TV, watching adult programmes alone in their bedroom hinders language development.
Marilyn B Benoit, past president of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, has warned that over-exposure to new technology stops children from learning to control themselves.
This lack of "frustration tolerance" (or patience) leads to tantrums when they do not immediately get what they want.
"The exponential technological advancements of recent years have afforded the possibility for young children to achieve instant gratification at the touch of a button. If one has been raised to have instant gratification, is it then surprising that at those times when one has to wait one's turn, be left out, or not get a desired object, explosive rage is the result?"
Professor Benoit suggests a link between children's constant exposure to rapid-fire stimuli and the increase in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Even those children whose parents have time to spare do not necessarily escape these effects. After all, they will see the same adverts and want the same gadgets as their friends.
Paul Ennals, chief executive of the NCB, agrees that there has been a rise in the number of children diagnosed as suffering from mental health problems. And more pupils are being referred to special schools because of emotional and behavioural difficulties.
But he warns against painting an unnecessarily bleak view of childhood. The recent panic over obesity notwithstanding, children are healthier than ever before and education standards are higher, he says.
An NCB report, to be published shortly, shows that both children and their parents have a very positive view of modern childhood.
Children today certainly have their problems, but while adults often have a negative view of "the youth of today", real youths they come into contact with are likely to win their approval.
Moral panic, it seems, is confined to the devils we don't know.
Primary Forum 24