Wednesday, September 13, 2006
Junk culture 'is poisoning our children'
by Ben Fenton
A sinister cocktail of junk food, marketing, over-competitive schooling and electronic entertainment is poisoning childhood, a powerful lobby of academics and children's experts says.
In a letter to The Daily Telegraph, 110 teachers, psychologists, children's authors and other experts call on the Government to act to prevent the death of childhood.
They write: "We are deeply concerned at the escalating incidence of childhood depression and children's behavioural and developmental conditions."
The group, which includes Philip Pullman, the children's author, Jacqueline Wilson, the children's laureate, her predecessor Michael Morpurgo, Baroness Greenfield, the director of the Royal Institution and Dr Penelope Leach, the child care expert, blames a failure by politicians and public alike to understand how children develop.
"Since children's brains are still developing, they cannot adjust. . . to the effects of ever more rapid technological and cultural change," they write.
"They still need what developing human beings have always needed, including real food (as opposed to processed "junk"), real play (as opposed to sedentary, screen-based entertainment), first-hand experience of the world they live in and regular interaction with the real-life significant adults in their lives.
"They also need time. In a fast-moving, hyper-competitive culture, today's children are expected to cope with an ever-earlier start to formal schoolwork and an overly academic test-driven primary curriculum.
"They are pushed by market forces to act and dress like mini-adults and exposed via the electronic media to material which would have been considered unsuitable for children even in the very recent past."
The letter was circulated by Sue Palmer, a former head teacher and author of Toxic Childhood, and Dr Richard House, senior lecturer at the Research Centre for Therapeutic Education at Roehampton University.
Mrs Palmer said: "I have been thinking about this for a long time and I just decided something had to be done.
"It is like this giant elephant in all our living rooms, the fact that children's development is being drastically affected by the kind of world they are brought up in."
She cited research by Prof Michael Shayer at King's College, London, which showed that 11-year-olds measured in cognitive tests were "on average between two and three years behind where they were 15 years ago".
"I think that is shocking. We must make a public statement – a child's physical and psychological growth cannot be accelerated.
"It changes in biological time, not at electrical speed. Childhood is not a race."
The other signatories include Sir Jonathon Porritt, the environmental campaigner, Prof Tim Brighouse, the Commissioner for London Schools and Sir Richard Bowlby, the President of the Centre for Child Mental Health.
Mr Morpurgo said: "We have so much anxiety about children, their protection, their care, their education, that this has developed into fear. There is a fear around children, both from schools and politicians, which has led to this target-driven education system.
"That has put children into an academic straitjacket from a very early age which restricts creativity and the enrichment of childhood."
He condemned the "virtual play" represented by electronic games and internet surfing. "That is where children are getting their ideas from and I find it quite "toxic" and pretty scary for the future."
Jacqueline Wilson said: "We are not valuing childhood. I speak to children at book signings and they ask me how I go through the process of writing and I say, 'Oh you know, it's just like when you play imaginary games and you simply write it all down'.
"All I get is blank faces. I don't think children use their imaginations any more."
Baroness Greenfield is so concerned about the effect of technology on children she has set up an all-party group in the Lords to look into it.
The other members are three former education secretaries, Baroness Williams, Baroness Shephard and Baroness Morris.
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