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.

Do we worry too much about the safety of our children?
Andrew Johnson

The lanterns and Hallowe'en costumes are ready, and a school holiday long-associated with harmless mischief has begun. Yet for millions of children, this could be the quietest half term yet, as worried families tell their children to watch television instead of playing out.

A third of British children never go outside the home alone, thanks to growing fear of violence and abduction. Three-quarters of parents feel the risks of playing out are growing, while two-thirds say they are anxious whenever their children go beyond the front gate.

The findings, based on a national NOP survey, are to be released tomorrow. They show that nearly half of all children spend more than three hours a day in front of television or computer screens, despite warnings about the dangers of obesity. Kidscape, the child protection charity, said the figures show we have "a generation of children afraid of their own shadow".

This week, national Parent's Week, psychologists and children's groups will respond by calling on families to let their children play out. They blame a culture of "creeping paranoia" about the outside world, saying that children who stay indoors are at risk of long-term psychological damage and weight-related problems.

Studies show that the typical amount of outdoor space that children play in has been reduced by 90 per cent in a generation, with the average eight-year-old now going no further than 100 yards from the front door.

Last month, the outgoing director of the Children's Play Council, a national charity, said that children are being raised as if they were "battery chickens", with damaging social and emotional consequences. Rising levels of traffic and bullying remain genuine concerns for children and parents alike.

According to new research by the National Family and Parenting Institute (NFPI), a think-tank, nearly one in 10 children were bullied or threatened during the last summer holidays.

Yet the number of child abduction and murder cases remains no greater than in the past, running at about six a year, despite their prominent treatment in the media. "Children should have the chance to play independently, and we are calling on adults to make sure children feel welcome in their communities," said the NFPI.

Michele Elliott, the director of Kidscape, said: "What we're doing to our kids is telling them the world is a very horrible and scary place. We're creating a generation of children who are afraid of their own shadow. As a charity we have become more vocal in our message that it isn't such a terrible world out there."

Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at the University of Kent and a specialist in "risk consciousness", said: "Parents are almost forced to fall in line. Most parents are getting bombarded with these kind of messages in all kinds of ways.

"In the past two or three years there has been an exponential rise in the pressure on parents with scare stories. The minority of parents who try to resist it are stigmatised as irresponsible. When your own kid is the only one allowed to go shopping, to go to the swimming pool by himself, it looks very strange."

Oliver James, the psychologist and commentator, said: "From the age of seven or eight, I went to school on the bus, then I went on the tube.

"There isn't any reason today why a child shouldn't do that. There's plenty of evidence, too, that watching television for long periods of time is bad for them."

The poll was commissioned by the Royal Bank of Scotland and NatWest, which are paying for 450 school playgrounds. The number of safe places for children is steadily diminishing. Thousands of sports fields have been sold off in the past two decades and, even though the rate has slowed, 800 applications to build on playing fields were approved last year, according to the National Playing Fields Association.

The Demos think-tank recently urged ministers to provide access to green space within 250 metres of their homes by 2020.

The Department of Culture, Media and Sport commissioned a report on the issue by the former health secretary Frank Dobson. Reporting in January, he urged the Government to spend millions renovating the country's decaying playgrounds. As yet there has been no response, provoking fears that ministers are reluctant to spend the £200m they promised.

Mr Dobson said: "We did make a promise at the last general election that £200m extra from the lottery should go into children's play, and I assume we're going to keep that promise."

Rick Philips, 65, a retired teacher, and Linda Philips, 49, a secretary. They have a 21-year-old son who grew up in the street.

Mrs Philips says: "My son used to go out in front of the house when he was smaller, but I used to watch him all the time because you can see how busy this road is.

"He used to ride up and down here on his bike at age three and four. There is a lot more traffic now. When the school starts it is very busy. I don't think the kids play out in the street like they used to.

"Bringing him up now, I'd be absolutely frantic. There is so much more in the news now about paedophiles. We worry about paedophiles now much more than we used to."

Andy Davey, 50, a printer, and his wife, Julie, 41, who are bringing up their children James 14, and Chris, 17.

"They used to play out," says Mr Davey. "Chris was about 13 when we allowed him out. James was 12. They were allowed in the garden at six or seven, and in the street in front of the house when they were nine or 10. At the time there seemed to be quite a lot of nutters about. They seemed to be more cases on the news about kids getting abducted.

"James is now 14. The rule is that he has to be home by eight, but later if he is with a group or is at a friend's house."

Mrs Davey adds: "You can't keep him cooped up because they just rebel more. When they were younger I was happy as long as they were in the street or in the school where I could go and spy on them."

Brian Hill, 53, an accounts administrator whose grandchildren Grace, seven, and George, four, visit regularly.

He has two grown-up children, a daughter, 29, and a son, 28. But while his children used to play in the street, his grandchildren stick to his back garden.

"My son used to roam all over the place," he says. "We didn't have fears about them then. I now have grandchildren and my daughter doesn't let them play out. Whether there is greater risk or whether it's implied through the media I don't know. I think it's more in the mind. I don't think that it has got much worse.

"There is a huge amount more traffic now, however. This area has been built up tremendously over the last 30 years. But I don't think children have the same road sense they used to."

Richard Clarke, 44, a computer software engineer, doesn't let Ian, nine, play out on his own, partly because of safety fears and partly because he hasn't felt he is old enough until now.

"I don't let him play in the street," he says. "If he plays out there is always an adult with him. He can play in the immediate area in front of the house where I can keep an eye on him. A little bit of that is concern for his safety and about him wandering off, but also it is just what we do, we do things together. If he goes to see his friend at the top of the street then we take him.

"But I'm not paranoid. At nine, I'm now beginning to think he should be out more. It is something I've started to think about. But when he's at home he is often playing inside on his Playstation 2."

Stephen Roo, 48, a gas fitter, and Gabrielle, 47, a special needs assistant, brought up three children, now 19, 21 and 24. Ten years ago the street was quieter, they say, and the school fields across the road were open for children to play in.

"The problem with the school playground now is that it is closed all the time," says Mr Roo.

"The kids used to play in the school fields but they've put gates around them now so they can't get in. There are acres of fields over there, and the kids had access to them.

"I think it's because of security concerns. They're worried about strangers walking through the grounds.

"It's a shame. They used to be able to use the tennis courts, but not now, unless they climb over a fence."

Julie Jones, 35, a clinical nurse who specialises in palliative care, lives with husband, Steve, and two children, Sam, nine, and Ellen, four. She is wary of letting her children play in the street.

"I don't let Ellen out, but I do let Sam out, within reason," she says. "I need to know where he is. If he is with a friend, then he's allowed to go into the next road, or to the grounds of the secondary school which is opposite our house. He's not allowed to do those things on his own. I'm worried about paedophiles. Some of his friends have mobile phones. My child hasn't got one, but we do have long-range walkie-talkies.

"Traffic is also a concern. The other week Sam took my husband's bike out and he fell off because it was too big for him.

"When I was a child I lived in a terrace house and all the kids used to play in the street. There's a loss of community spirit."

First published in the Independent on Sunday, 24 October 2004