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     Volume 6 Issue 49 | December 28, 2007 |

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Food for Thought

Paradise Lost?

Farah Ghuznavi

At a time when approaches to child-rearing and the very definition of “childhood” appears to be in a state of transition in many parts of the world, a new report has criticised the British government for its alleged failure to create an enabling environment in which the children of the world's fifth richest nation can grow up happy, secure and well-adjusted. A dossier compiled by 380 campaign and welfare groups has revealed that more than 40 child-protection safeguards are currently being breached in the UK.

According to the Children's Rights Alliance for England (CRAE), the health and well-being of an entire generation is at risk because the Government is failing to uphold their rights to privacy, safety and equality. The life chances of certain categories of young and vulnerable people are likely to be most adversely affected, including refugees, teenagers in prison and children living in poverty.

The latter category is of particular concern to social scientists and child rights activists, not least because there are, perhaps surprisingly, considerable numbers of children living in poverty in the United Kingdom. Although a major pledge by the current Labour government was to halve child poverty by 2010, and figures have shown some recent improvements, the risk of a child living in severe hardship and deprivation remains unacceptedly high at 28% - and this is double the rate it was in 1979.

According to Professor Jonathan Bradshaw, an expert on childhood, while British children may be considered very fortunate in comparison to those living in Third World countries, evidence indicates that they are not doing as well as children in many European countries and other industrialised economies. An indicator of this can be seen in the fact that shortage of affordable housing has left 130,000 children homeless in England this Christmas an increase of 128 per cent in the past decade, according to research by the shadow housing minister Grant Shapps (UK Independent).

Children who are victims become less able to protect themselves.

Currently, around 3.4 million British children continue to live in poverty, in one of the richest countries in the world. Nearly half a million children live in overcrowded conditions and many operate within unsafe or neglectful family environments. As a result, they are vulnerable, both in terms of abuse from adults, and bullying from peers, and may require extra support which many feel is currently not being adequately provided by the government.

Even more worryingly, Britain currently incarcerates more children than any other country in Europe. Out of a total of 9000, more than 3000 of these children are in young offender institutions and 500 are in prison on remand. All this breaches international child-protection conventions, and has led to considerable criticism from children's charities.

The general physical health of British children has improved in recent decades, with infant mortality rates having fallen from 17 deaths per 1000 live births in 1971 to 5 per 1000 today. This is partly the result of comprehensive child vaccination programmes against measles, diphtheria and tuberculosis. Yet even in this regard, the news is not uniformly positive. Despite benefiting from technological advances, sedentary lifestyles and the growing fast-food culture has seen obesity rates among children and teenagers soar. Not only has the incidence of obesity tripled since the 1970s, it has also triggered a rise in diabetes among young children!

Disturbingly, recent decades have also seen an increasing incidence of mental health issues among young people. Britain has the highest self-harm rate in Europe. And the average age for depression to strike is now 14, down from 30 in the 1980s! Some of the factors considered responsible include the pressures of modern-day life, which may be forcing children to face issues that they would previously not have had to address before reaching adulthood (e.g. the growing sexualisation of children), and leading to alienation and stress.

A contributory factor to the emotional problems facing children may in fact be parental paranoia over child safety. Although Britain has one of the lowest child death rates from accidents, and statistics indicate that children do not face greater risks from predatory adults than they did a few years ago the annual number of child murders is 79, a figure almost identical to the incidence 30 years ago parental fears have reached unhealthy levels (UK Independent).

A report from the Children's Society revealed that the majority of 10-year-olds have never been allowed to go to the shops or the park on their own because their parents fear “stranger danger”. Furthermore, 43% of adults interviewed expressed the view that children should not be allowed out with their friends until they are 14 years or over, despite the fact that these adults had themselves been allowed to play unsupervised from the age of 10 onwards. Some experts feel that this level of parental anxiety is actually undermining the confidence and emotional development of the children growing up in these families.

Professor Robert Winston, an eminent child development expert, emphasises that it is vital to a child's development for them to know how to keep themselves safe. According to him, “This sort of responsibility and independence will actually make them far safer in the outside world.” This is particularly important because studies have shown that children who suffer assaults or other crime once are more likely to be victimised repeatedly.

A trend that has been causing some concern among child welfare specialists is the growing divide between poor children and their affluent peers. This is nowhere more evident than in the gulf in academic achievement between children from rich and poor families, which is greater than ever before. Thus, children from the richest 20% of families are 5 times more likely to acquire a university degree by the age of 23 years, than those from the poorest 20% of families. A significant deterioration is evident here, since in the early 1980s, the figure was only about 3 times more likely i.e. it is on the way to doubling!

Another preoccupation among social scientists is the incidence of anti-social behaviour among children, and the identification of so-called “feral youth”. Child rights campaigners are worried about the demonisation of young people and the government response to this problem, which has consisted of banning orders and ASBOs (Anti-Social Behaviour Orders) which seek to protect communities from such children. But as the Chief Executive of the Children's Society has pointed out, many children are being punished for merely hanging out on street corners - “There is no question that some children behave very badly but there are an awful lot who…are not actually causing any trouble.” (UK Independent)

Along with children who are being victimised through no fault of their own, there is also the worry that vulnerable children whether in the penal system or living in the mainstream may be damaged as a result of society's failure to protect them. As a study tracking 1500 children between the ages of 2-17 years for a 2-year period found, exposure to one type of crime increases the risk of becoming a victim to other types. Thus, children who had suffered sexual abuse were 7 times more likely to be attacked again within the next year, compared to those who had not been sexually abused.

This may be because children who are victims become less able to protect themselves. According to one expert, “Some of the kids are affected psychologically by the victimisation…they get depressed, feel powerless and have symptoms that cloud their thinking and their judgement.” Encouragingly, one of the most effective safeguards against children becoming serial victims is through having the support of a good group of friends, since such friends can provide the best protection against abusive adults or bullying peers.

Another factor for parents to consider is in fact whether they may be contributing to their children's insecurities by pandering to certain of their demands. For example, recent years have seen consumer trends that contribute to what is termed the “sexploitation” of young children. Mainstream retailers have been marketing products that encourage children to think of themselves in a way that is inappropriate.

The sexualisation of childhood also risks attracting the attention of predatory or paedophile adults. Hence, it is hard to understand why Tesco would be marketing a pole-dancing kit in the toys section of its website! It belongs in the same category as the retailer Asda, which has stopped the sale of pink and black lace lingerie to children (why were they selling these things to kids in the first place?!) and the clothing chain Next, which was recently forced to remove t-shirts for young girls with the slogan “So many young boys, so little time”.

Quite apart from issues of material deprivation and differential access to educational and other opportunities, such increasing trends of rampant consumerism and the increasing sexualisation of children make it fairly obvious why there is cause for concern about the well-being of children in affluent societies in the 21st century. While they may face different challenges and pressures from their peers living in developing countries, it is clear that the problems they face are very real. From the gulf between those living in poverty and others who are privileged, to the more universal issues of peer pressure and bullying, to the newer trend of sexual objectification of children, childhood is clearly no longer what it used to be.

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