Tuesday, September 12, 2006

21st century childhood

Some people are worried about children. A letter to the Daily Telegraph today, signed by over a hundred psychologists, educationalists, authors etc., is concerned that modern technology, modern educational targets, and concerns about child-safety are 'poisoning' and damaging children's development. Here's a taster:
"Since children’s brains are still developing, they cannot adjust – as full-grown adults can – to the effects of ever more rapid technological and cultural change. 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."
It concludes:
"This is a complex socio-cultural problem to which there is no simple solution, but a sensible first step would be to encourage parents and policy-makers to start talking about ways of improving children’s well-being. We therefore propose as a matter of urgency that public debate be initiated on child-rearing in the 21st century this issue should be central to public policy-making in coming decades."
I'm not sure what to make of this. For a start, it is not clear to me that adults do much better adjusting to technological and cultural change. The letter points to some recent research, but in general just gestures towards the usual bugbears: junk food and computers. Interviewed on the radio this morning, one of the signatories gave the common line that kids ought to be outside more, climbing trees and scraping knees. There is also an odd and repeated use of 'real' as a qualifier to mean 'good': real play, real food, real interactions. I'm not sure what this means, besides it being a helpful bit of rhetoric: Who would deny that it is a good idea to eat 'real food'?

But besides the various arguments we might have about whether it was ever true that children were not somehow -- often badly -- affected by their environment (Should they all be back up chimneys or down a pit? When was this better time for children?) the major hole in the account seems to me to be the lack of any clear statement of what is meant by 'children's well-being'. It appears to be in important ways different from adult well-being, but it is not clear how. Until we have a better vision of what this is -- and, no doubt, the authors of the letter might have their own view although it is omitted from their brief polemic -- we won't have any idea how this public and political debate ought to proceed.

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