Frank Furedi

Professor of Sociology at University of Kent, and author of Politics of Fear, Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?, Therapy Culture, Paranoid Parenting and Culture of Fear.

Child of our time
Gillian Bowditch

IT'S 5PM on a Saturday afternoon in Bridge of Allan, Stirlingshire and a clutch of pre-teen girls are getting ready for their first "under" (as in under-18 disco). The fake tan has been applied, toenails have been painted, boys have been texted. With two hours to kill and no more lip gloss to apply, they run into the garden and start to bounce on a giant trampoline. Dressed like adolescents but playing like toddlers, these 11-year-olds are suspended between two worlds. Watching them, one thought occurs - honey, we've shrunk childhood.

Computer literate, fashion-conscious, wealthier and more worldly-wise than their parents, today's children are subject to more choice and arguably more pressure than any previous generation. They live accelerated lives, as milestones - physical, emotional and social - are passed at younger ages. They have more rights, more say and more possessions than their parents, but they have less freedom and independence. Is the price they are paying for their new-found status too high?

The answer, according to Richard Louv, an American author who has just published Last Child in the Woods: Nature-Deficit Disorder, is yes. An essential element of childhood, he argues, involves playing in woods and fields, mucking about on ponds and riding bikes through the countryside. An entire body of literature, from Swallows and Amazons to The Famous Five has taken children's relationship with nature for granted. Louv believes cultural changes in the last 20 years - such as the technology boom, the emphasis on academic attainment and parental paranoia - are leading to what he calls the "first denatured generation".

"Never before have kids in western culture been so separated from nature," says Louv, speaking from a Denver hotel room where he is on tour to promote his book. "Kids watch lots of nature programmes on television. They can tell you all about the rainforest, but they no longer have the hands dirty and feet wet type of contact with nature, which their parents and grandparents had. This is happening at the very moment that we are discovering that contact with nature may be essential for healthy childhood development. Studies done over the last eight years show that adults, as well as children, get important stress reduction from contact with nature."

Louv says children now present to doctors, "not with broken limbs sustained from falling out of trees, but with repetitive stress injuries from playing too many computer games". When children do play outside, it is in sanitised play parks with bark chips under their feet, a fence round them and adults hovering on the sidelines. "We are in danger of criminalising outdoor play," he says.

In Britain, snowball fights, conkers, marbles and skipping have been banned in some schools because of fears for children's health and safety. If parents turn up at accident and emergency on three or more occasions with a child who has bruising or broken bones, they risk an investigation by social services. Critics warn that we are in danger of breeding a generation of mollycoddled wimps.

But like so many of the changes to childhood, the decline in unstructured outdoor play has been driven not so much by children's changing tastes, as by adult fears. "Parents are essentially worried about abduction," says Louv. "They see stranger-danger as the biggest threat. The irony is that in the United States, the number of abductions of children has actually been going down for at least a decade. Having said that, I am a parent of a 17-year-old and a 23-year-old and I certainly felt that fear."

A recent survey of 1,400 children for the children's charity, 4Children, showed that, while more than 50 per cent of children rated an open space in which to play as the most important feature of their neighbourhood, only 44 per cent ever played outdoors.

But perhaps parents are right to be paranoid. In Britain, abductions and attempted abduction of children rose by 45 per cent to 864 in the 12 months to April 2003. Half of these involved attacks by strangers. Actual abductions remain extremely rare, however. In 2002-3, 68 children were abducted by strangers. Parents, however, remain extremely fearful that if they allow their children out unsupervised, they will come to harm. Research by the Policy Studies Institute indicates that, while 80 per cent of eight-year-olds were allowed to walk to school without an adult in 1971, that figure had fallen to nine per cent by 1990.

Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at the University of Kent and author of Paranoid Parenting, says the biggest change to have occurred in childhood over the past generation is the way children are perceived by society. "Children are increasingly defined by their vulnerability. The implication is that children lack the resources to cope with life. Adults have decided to insulate children from life-experiences.

"Everything, from the food children eat to the games they play, is now viewed from the position of risk. The more you regard children as being an endangered species, the more you regard the threats out there as being impossible to deal with. Threats to children are now considered both routine and extreme."

At The Museum of Childhood in Edinburgh's Royal Mile, the concept of childhood is frozen in an aspic of Corgi toys and old dolls houses. But the consensus among the visitors is that children today have a harder time than their parents or grandparents had. Linda, from Nairn, feels that there are increased dangers. "I read recently about a child who was abducted from her garden. It really makes you think." Andrea, from Edinburgh, feels that the days of children heading out to play on their own all day are gone for good. "When I was growing up, all the kids in the neighbourhood played together in a gang. These days there aren't the spaces in the city for kids to play outdoors."

But if children have less freedom than their parents, they have much more in the way of material goods. The average cost of raising a child in Scotland is estimated to be £6,638 a year. By the time they graduate from university, £140,000 will have been spent on them, according to the Liverpool Victoria Friendly Society. The typical ten-year-old's birthday costs £270, and the average amount of pocket money for children aged 12 to 16 is currently £9.82 a week. Pocket money has risen by more than four times the rate of inflation in the last year, according to The Halifax.

Andrea believes that children's toys today leave little to the imagination. "All they do is sit in front of a screen," she says. "And kids today expect so much more. When I was growing up you got one big present at Christmas. Now they get five or six big things."

Juliet Schor, an American academic whose book Born To Buy examines the relationship between children and marketing, believes consumerism is consuming our children. "Children," says Schor, "have become conduits from the consumer marketplace to the household, the link between advertisers and the family purse." A 1997 study found that 70 per cent of parents were susceptible to pester power. One-quarter of children aged seven to ten now own their own mobile phone, and sales to youngsters are the fastest growing sector of the market. More than 50 per cent of primary school children in Scotland have an e-mail address. But the backlash against the consumer culture has already started. Next year, the British pop-psychiatrist Oliver James brings out his book Affluenza. His thesis is that materialism and over-consumption have wrecked havoc with our mental well-being.

Researchers at the University of London have found that the number of children and teenagers on antidepressants has been increasing year on year. Of the nine countries studied, the increase has been highest in Britain, where the number of under-18s taking antidepressants now stands at around 60,000. Furedi says the growth in unhappy children is in part due to the fact that they are absorbing their parent's anxieties.

"Kids are still kids, but they are conscious of their parents' view of the world. It's not uncommon to hear nine year-olds talking about being 'stressed out'. Children aspire to be adults and that is good. It's an important part of their development. But we want to make them more dependent. We are afraid to let them stand on their own two feet."

Affluenza-style books already abound in the US, where statistics show that parents spend seven times as long shopping as being with their children. Connie Dawson and David Bredehoft, the authors of How Much is Enough?: Everything You Need to Know to Steer Clear of Overindulgence and Raise Likeable, Responsible and Respectful Children say overindulgence has hit every social group, not just the Beckhams and Osbournes.

"It happens when a mother offers the breast to a baby every time he squeals," say Dawson and Bredehof. "It happens when a three-year-old gets what she wants when she wants it." Older children, who are exempted from chores, and young adults who live a carefree life at home waited on by their mothers, all suffer from overindulgence, the authors claim. "It's not just children pressuring parents; it's other parents pressurising parents. Society likes overindulgence."

That overindulgence can take some destructive forms. An Edinburgh University study of 7,000 Scottish pupils last year found that 34 per cent of 15-year-olds and 13 per cent of 13-year-olds were drinking on a weekly basis.

But if children's entry into the adult world is happening faster than at any time since we stopped sending small boys up chimneys, it may in part be because children are physically growing up earlier. In the last century, the average age of the menarche has fallen from 14 years to 12.5 years.

Many of today's children also experience more emotional upheaval at earlier ages. One-quarter of dependent children in Britain live in lone-parent families, almost twice the proportion in 1981. According to the Economic and Social Research Council, 70 per cent of children today have working mothers, compared with 53 per cent in 1980. "As relationships between adults become more fragile, parents make a bigger emotional investment in their children," says Furedi. "If a woman knows her husband or boyfriend will leave her, she looks to her children to fill an emotional gap."

Back at the Museum of Childhood, Linda believes that even in two-parent families, the pressure is intense. "In lots of families, both parents work, and when they do get time with the children, they are tired."

Since the 1950s, there has been a growing sense of the erosion or disappearance of childhood. Social change, which a century earlier might have been interpreted as progress has, since the Second World War, been interpreted by many religious and political groups as a threat to the sanctity of the family and the innocence of childhood. The trend accelerated in the 1980s with a body of literature, by authors such as Neil Postman and Marie Winn, which suggested that children were entering a new Dark Age. They predicted that childhood, as a separate time in life, free from the worries, expectations and responsibilities of adulthood, was coming to an end.

David Buckingham, professor of education at London University's School of Culture, Language and Communication, says: "There is a popular argument which suggests that children in the past didn't have access to adult secrets and that they have now been exposed to adult knowledge through sexual content in the media," he says. "While boundaries between adulthood and childhood are blurring, this theory plays into a rather melodramatic view of how the world is changing. A lot of the arguments are overstated. Children always knew about sex, but in the past the fact that they knew was not apparent to adults. Now adults know that children know. It's about adult awareness not the fact that children have gone from a state of pristine innocence to a state of complete knowledge. The interesting point is not about the sexualisation of children per se, but about the fact that responsibility is being placed on children at a younger age to make decisions about their lives.

"In an age when there is no longer a clear moral code and where many more things are tolerated, the responsibility for working out how you want to live your life is something that children are having to confront much more on their own. Children have a great deal more choice but in some ways they also have a burden of choice. What I don't buy into is the idea that children have been prematurely dragged into adulthood and that this is damaging for them. People increasingly talk about children's rights and about children being consulted. So even if that blurring of boundaries is happening, and it is in certain areas, then it is a positive development. Children are increasingly being seen as citizens with rights."

Furedi, too, believes children are much more robust than we often believe. "I think kids are really good at coping," he says. "They are much better than adults in many ways."

Buckingham points out that, despite adults' fears, parents remain the most important influence in children's lives. In a recent 4Children survey, 70 per cent said the person they most admired was their mother, while 62 per cent said the person they admired second most was their father.

"Dialogue between parents and children is as important as it ever was," says Buckingham. "What is changing is child rearing. That is due in part to the changing structure of the family. In single-parent families, children are involved, by necessity, in decision-making at a much younger age, so they have more power. But even the traditional nuclear family is moving away from an authoritarian style of parenting towards a style of parenting which involves much more consultation with children.

"Parents want to arrive at consensus through debate, not through imposing a strict set of moral values. This places more of a burden on children, but it also makes it harder for parents. It's much harder to negotiate than to just lay down the law. There are material changes in family life, particularly as people have fewer children, but also as they become more affluent. Children do have more power within the family, not least as consumers. Kids are growing up in a much more complex world, but I don't think you can interpret it as parents losing control or abandoning their role."

It could be argued that, rather than childhood disappearing, what are actually disappearing are children themselves. In Scotland only 22 per cent of households contain dependent children. In 2002, the Scottish birth rate fell to the lowest level since records began in 1855. But having fewer children means valuing them more as individuals. In the last 50 years, parenting has developed to include paying attention to children's psychic and emotional needs as opposed to simply their material wants.

Back in Bridge of Allan, the disco is underway. The girls are ordering soft drinks and comparing body jewellery. The boys are refusing to dance. Then, suddenly, the party takes off as everyone starts to do Crazy Frog impersonations. We may have shrunk childhood but it still seems to fit.

First published in the Scotsman, 23 July 2005