• Frank Furedi
  • Frank Furedi
  • Sociologist, commentator and author

Curse of helicopter parenting

During the past weeks we have heard many tragic stories of young people’s obsessions with their online games.

It is tempting to blame the internet and social media for children’s addiction to digital technology.

Politicians, policy makers and commentators have all welcomed the decision of the NHS to offer the diagnosis of “internet gaming addiction” to people who become enslaved to their computer screens.

Now they are demanding that social media companies enact a statutory “duty of care” to protect young people from becoming addicted to their apps and games.

However, the question we should be asking is how did so many children end up cooped up in their digital bedroom in the first place?

Given half a chance, most children would be hanging out with their mates outdoors.

When I interviewed a group of children and asked them where would you rather spend your afternoon — messing around in the park or playing with your game indoors — they all opted for the freedom of the outdoors.

Tragically, the outdoors is fast becoming a no-go area for kids. Worse still, children are rarely let out of sight of their parents and adults.

Research from the University of Minnesota, published this week, warns about the downside of what they call helicopter parenting.

This means hovering around your child, not letting them out of your sight and not allowing them the independence to make their way outside — in the offline world.

My research has led me to conclude that helicopter parenting diminishes children’s aspiration for independence.

It also discourages children from learning how to deal with the challenges and risks they face in the real world.

Paranoid parenting confines young people to the indoors, so that, surprise surprise, they end up sitting in front of their computer in their bedrooms.

There are many influences that encourage some children to become compulsive users of internet games.

But arguably its main driver is the risk-averse helicopter parenting that limits children’s opportunities to develop themselves through interacting with challenges in the physical offline world.

Obsessive internet gaming is not the cause but a symptom of the problem — risk-averse child-rearing.

In their hearts of hearts most parents know they should stop hovering around their children and allow them more space to flourish.

But it is easier to point the finger of blame at the internet than to let go and adopt a more relaxed approach to child-rearing.

When I interviewed a group of parents recently, they complained that their children spend all their time texting or online, and rarely engage directly with other children.

When I asked about what opportunities they have provided for their children to explore the physical world, and to have direct offline experiences with other children, there was a hesitant silence.

Parents are under constant pressure to treat children as if they are an endangered species.

Virtually every dimension of children’s lives comes with a health warning.

In recent times, a culture of fear has enveloped childhood. Alarmist warnings about stranger danger, bullying or the likelihood of traffic accidents have made parents wary about permitting their youngsters to go out to play.

To make matters worse, schools and local authorities have also adopted policies that limit children’s access to the outdoors.

I still remember, in 2007, after a group of children were suspended from school for throwing snowballs, an angry mother writing to me to ask: “What will they think of next?” Regrettably, the obsessive impulse to regulate children’s lives ensures that more and more of their freedom will be curtailed.

Who would have imagined children would be prevented from pursuing the age-old custom of playing conkers.

At first, many adults were shocked when they discovered a few local authorities had introduced a policy of “tree management”, a euphemism for preventing children from climbing on horse chestnut trees or playing with conkers.

Today that shock has turned into a sense of resignation.

The refrain “we live in a different world” signals this uneasy conformity to the new reality.

Is it surprising that, when denied the simple delights of climbing trees and building dens, many youngsters will opt to look for adventure in the only space that is available to them — which happens to be online?

But we don’t have to accept a reality that dictates that children must be evacuated from the outdoors. We don’t have to prevent our children playing with their friends in a physical as opposed to a virtual environment.

Nor do adults have to always accompany children when they walk to school or play in the park.

Frank Furedi’s new book How Fear Works: Culture Of Fear In The 21st Century is published by Bloomsbury Press.

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