Do we worry too much about the safety
of our children?
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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."
published in the Independent on Sunday, 24 October 2004