Junk food, computer games, relentless marketing and competitive schooling are making British children depressed, according to an influencial group of experts. But why pick on kids when you could say just the same about all of us, says Anne Karpf
Wednesday September 13, 2006
In the past it would have taken the form of a sermon, a lecture, or a monograph, but yesterday's diatribe against modern childhood fittingly made its entrance as a letter to the Daily Telegraph. The paper also ran it as a front-page story, and the subject of a leader ("Lost Childhoods"). Although it targeted the usual suspects - junk food, the electronic media, the curriculum - what made it more than the ritual rail against modernity was the sheer diversity and stature of its signatories. Authors (Philip Pullman, Anne Fine, Jacqueline Wilson) and academics, early-years specialists and educators, economists and psychotherapists: 110 of them got together to express their deep concern that, to quote the title of their letter, "Modern life leads to more depression among young children."
They charge that children's developing brains cannot adjust to the speed of technological and cultural change. That children's needs have not altered, but real food, real play, interaction with adults, and time to be children have given way to junk food, sedentary, screen-based entertainment, and a test-driven curriculum. That children today act and dress like mini-adults and are exposed to "material that would have been considered unsuitable for them even in the very recent past". Society, they argue, is preoccupied with protecting children from physical harm but has lost sight of their emotional and social needs, leading to an escalation in childhood depression, substance abuse, violence and self-harm.
Are they right? If they are, what is the cause - and what can be done about it?
The trouble with the letter is its sweeping scope. Education, media and food, while there are important connections between all of them, have different problems, and though they impact on one another, grouping them together hovers on the rim of reductionism, with the risk of Golden Agery not far behind. The Telegraph leader didn't actually say it was all so much better back in our day - indeed, it argued that children have always gone through stroppy phases - but its elegiac title seems to hark back to the leader writer's lost childhood as much as to the one that has purportedly disappeared today.
The letter-writers acknowledge that "this is a complex sociocultural problem to which there is no simple solution", yet they also say that children need what developing humans have always needed. In fact the lives and practices of human beings have differed vastly through the ages, and differ enormously between cultures today. There's a real danger that, in these admittedly turbulent times, we retreat to an idealised, nostalgic view of childhood - one which, if it existed at all, did so only for a relatively short period of time and only in certain parts of the world. Despite the radical changes now taking place, it is not as if childhood has always been one thing and is now another. Childhood as we know it is a relatively recent invention. It hasn't always been the 1950s.
In many respects, today's children are far more rounded creatures - in the extent of their environmental awareness, for instance, and in their concern for human rights - than they were ever expected or encouraged to be when I was a kid, and their childhoods are richer than ours were, not only materially. Judging by their magazines, just as many of them are pony-mad, ballet-crazy, or football-fanatical. Yes, appearance is now paramount, although if we think it's everything we may have been taken in by appearances. And some aspects of modern technology, like the rise of MySpace, rather than contributing to anomie, have created greater bonds between strangers, even if, admittedly, these are mediated through the screen rather than face to face. What may be irking us adults to distraction is that young people have found technological ways to escape their parents' scrutiny: the mobile allows them to communicate with their friends - all the time, goddammit - without having to pass via their parents first.
And yet. Some of what I've just written is a sop with which to soothe my own anxiety, for, like the letter-writers and most other parents, I'm anxious too. Is there a qualitative difference in what young people today are exposed to? The very quantity, as well as the extraordinary sophistication of the market, make it so. The extent of the penetration of electronic media into every corner of personal as well as social life is unprecedented. Combined with the commercialisation of public space - everything but the air we breathe is sponsored - and globalisation, this means that the market now gets into places it could only have dreamed of before. Seven-year-olds with mobiles is no longer a news story. Our aspirations are shaped by brands and even our imaginations have been colonised.
Food has become such a disaster area that Saint Jamie, he who threw himself into school dinners with such gusto, has been reduced to rubbishing parents rather than the supermarket that pays him and which is no slouch in the junk-peddling department. The rise of video and DVD, which provide so much genuine pleasure, has also made it damn near impossible to control what children watch. And school? Don't get me started. Here we see the impact of a much wider sickness: the managerial revolution. Nothing matters but it can be counted. If you can't grade it, forget it (and many children do).
Unavoidably glimpsing Big Brother this summer, I was truly shocked. Though I thought I didn't have a trace of Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells in me, I found it utterly degrading in its blatant cheapening of sexuality, its recruitment of victims willing to collaborate in their own exploitation in a desperate search for hyperreality, aka fame. It seemed an emblem of a morally vacuous culture, a spiritual hole. There, now I've turned into a Daily Telegraph leader too.
On the other hand, to expect morality from the market is a bit like expecting the Pope to speak Yiddish: it's not what it's designed for. Which brings us to the hardest part of this whole issue - the causes and solutions bit. The letter-writers are quite right in claiming that there's a lack of understanding of the realities and subtleties of child development, and call for a public debate. Yet we are dealing here with such gigantic, international forces that the task sometimes seems Sisyphean. At my gloomiest I even fear that a discussion of children's emotional needs will just provide extra research for commercial companies, simply allowing them to market products to kids more successfully.
Of course a start has to be made somewhere, but is childhood the right place? We've invested such hopes and fantasies in it, expecting it to be the opposite in almost all respects to adulthood, that we're almost inevitably going to swing between extremes of libertarianism and repression. In fact, what's wrong with modern childhood is part of what's wrong with modern adulthood. The lack of time for children to be aimless exactly matches that suffered by their parents. The encouragement of a precocious, clothes-and-make-up-driven sexuality mirrors the same experienced at the other end of the ageing spectrum. Rising substance abuse, self-harm and depression among young people? Certainly, but rife among middle-aged and old people too. If you wanted to be really reductionist about it, you could summarise the letter to the Daily Telegraph as "late capitalism is bad for your mental health" - whatever your age.
Yes, of course a debate is necessary - essential - though politicians seem to me the people least equipped to lead it. Of course a society based on need rather than want would look and feel different, and produce different kinds of human beings. But perhaps we should look at things the other way round. Perhaps we should recognise that what's remarkable is how little mental illness there is in economies where we are no longer citizens so much as consumers (even the tube announcements no longer refer to "passengers", but "customers"), and where short-termism is rife, with employees embraced and then dropped with no warning. When people are treated like things, it's hard to avoid turning into them.
In Richard Sennett's book on the new economy, The Corrosion of Character, a young American called Rico suddenly exclaims, "You can't imagine how stupid I feel when I talk to my kids about commitment. It's an abstract virtue to them; they don't see it anywhere." Sennett explores what happens in a society when people feel they don't matter. That's where the debate must begin.