Is childhood nothing like it used to be?

Most adults believe so. Mary Braid and Peter Victor investigate whether children really are subject to pressures their parents never knew
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THE FIRST day of August 1995 will go down for its record temperatures, but for many it will be remembered as the time when innocence crumbled and the magic of childhood all but disappeared.

The murders of Sophie Hook, 7, and life-long friends Paul Barker, 13, and Robert Gee, 12, has, it seems, shattered already fragile parental faith in the their children's future. That the victims were violently killed while engaged in age-old childhood pursuits - camping and fishing - heightened the sense of violation.

It was no use pointing to Home Office figures which show that the murder of children by strangers is very rare and has been consistently low for more than 20 years. Materially, children - the middle classes at least - are better off. They enjoy better health and are more widely travelled and worldly than their parents. Yet parents vehemently believe that their children's childhoods are poorer than their own: short-changed by an increasingly violent world.

Last year a MORI survey of a cross-section of parents for Barnardos found that two-thirds believed their offsprings' childhoods were worse than their own. Children, they claimed, were more aware of life's dark side and their future prospects were bleak, particularly marred by unemployment. More than 90 per cent said their children would see more crime and violence than the previous generation.

According to the child safety charity, Kidscape, 95 per cent of parents rate abduction and assault of children as their greatest fear. A recent survey by the Policy Studies Institute showed that while in 1971 80 per cent of seven- and eight-year-olds went to school on their own, only 9 per cent did so 20 years later. Abductions have indeed increased - tripling to 337 in the past 10 years - but estranged parents, not deranged strangers, are largely responsible for the rise.

Memories of long, hot summers, hazy with good clean fun and innocence, when carefree kids cycled country roads and camped out in farmers fields unthreatened by senseless attacks, may call for rose-coloured spectacles, but parents' belief that their young have been robbed of the childhood joys they took for granted may be more than mere selective recall.

Peter Wilson, the director of Young Minds, says there is growing evidence that modern children are subjected to pressures unimaginable to their elders. Child mental health problems are on the increase. Youth crime rates are up, as are child suicides.

While the numbers in distress are rising, so is the acuteness of the worst conditions. "The most disturbed children are more desperate, unbounded and dangerous to themselves and others than they were 15 years ago," said Mr Wilson, a child psychotherapist with long experience of the country's most troubled youngsters. "In them the agitation, anxiety and fear have reached new heights. Children are picking up the pressures of our times.

"Indeed, it is difficult to believe that violent images - today more powerfully conveyed on TV and video - have not impacted on the minds of disturbed children. Unprecedented technological change has affected everything from employment to the scattering of families. Linked to that is a feeling that every value is up for grabs."

Old standards have toppled, he argues. Adults' confusion percolates down to their offspring. Bitter family break-ups, the pushing of reluctant children into new unions, and the increase in single-parent households pile up the pressure on the young. "Children see the world through their parents' eyes," Mr Wilson said. "They are extremely sensitive to the way their parents feel."

In the midst of such social tension, last week's three murders seem heavy with meaning. Media that increasingly ape the US by turning personal tragedy into national therapy sessions play their part. Catastrophes are given extensive coverage not only in newspapers but on chat shows and TV and radio phone-ins, which act as a catalyst for a national cascade of despair. "These three murders have impacted on everyone's consciousness," Mr Wilson said. "They have filled everyday conversation. That raises the level of anxiety and panic."

Statistical comparisons of childhood are almost impossible to make. Definitions of poverty, like social expectations, change. But a spokeswoman for the Children's Society said that the spread of economic uncertainty to the middle class must be a factor in pervasive parental pessimism.

While there had been improvements in children's lives since the Fifties, the post-war years had been characterised by an optimism unimaginable today, she said. "People have lost the idea, promoted by politicians, that progress is possible."

Childhood may not be dead but it has undoubtedly changed. Enid Blyton's Famous Five are about to bound back on to our TV screens - part of a revival of old favourites attributed to nostalgic fortysomething producers - but Roald Dahl is the modern children's favourite. "He doesn't pretend childhood is an entirely pleasant experience," says Philippa Milnes-Smith, editorial director of Puffin Books.

Social realism in children's literature - done to death in the Seventies and Eighties - has been replaced by a more subtle genre. In the book that became Hollywood movie hit Mrs Doubtfire, Anne Fine still tackled divorce but in a humorous way. Ms Milnes-Smith sees this as a compliment to children's sophistication, depth of feeling and intellect.

Pat Clark, former chair of the Federation of Children's Books, says authors can under-estimate the experience of the new generation. "I got a group of 15- and 16-year-old girls together for an author of Sweet Valley High books, the junior Mills and Boons," said Ms Clark, a mother of two teenage boys with 21 years' teaching experience. "They tore her apart. She was shocked to find it was10- and 11-year-olds who were reading these books and discussing things like how far do you go with boys."

Nevertheless, she believes childhood survives. "Children have wider experience but I don't think they have changed tremendously. My 13- and 15-year-olds have been sitting out on the green with their bikes and their friends this week. We did the same. The sophistication is often surface. They are still children. Our parents probably felt we had lost our childhood. My dad was in short trousers until he left school."

Ms Milnes-Smith agrees. "There are differences but many things are the same. Children still enjoy adventure stories, funny stories and tales of the supernatural. They still love stories about animals." Black Beauty was among their parents' Top 10 titles. It is still in theirs.

Meyer Hillman, senior fellow at the Policy Studies Institute, warns that parental fear and over-protection is damaging children's growth and development. He compares today's children to battery chickens. "You may be protecting the chicken from foxes but you're lowering its quality of life. Children ferried everywhere in a Range Rover with bullbars - because of fear of traffic and abduction - do not get the regular physical exercise that comes from running, climbing and play.

"Second, there is the psychological development which the child needs and can get only when not under adult surveillance."

Those who heralded the death of childhood last week might consider whether they have bathed their own summers in soft focus. A recent survey of 1,000 adults by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children revealed that almost half had witnessed domestic violence as children in their own homes, a third were beaten with a strap, belt or shoe, one-tenth said they had suffered long-term effects from physical abuse, and 11 per cent said they had been physically molested by an adult.

The facts of childhood

In 1971, 80 per cent of all seven- and eight-year-olds went to school on their own. By 1990, only 9 per cent of children were doing so. (Policy Studies Institute)

Ninety-five per cent of parents rate abduction and assault of their child as their greatest fear. (Kidscape)

Two out of three adults believe that today's children have a worse deal than they did at the same age. Only one in 10 adults thinks childhood is better. (Facts of Life Mori survey for Barnardos)

Eighty per cent of children still live in a two-parent family. (Central Statistical Office)

One in 12 children lives in a step-family and the number of children living in one-parent families has doubled since 1970. (CSO)

One in four children lives in poverty. (Barnardos)

Half of all seven- to 10-year-olds have a TV set in their room. (CSO)

A third of 12- to 16-year-olds play computer games every day - some for at least 30 hours a week. (Mark Griffiths, University of Plymouth)

In 1983, eight in 10 15-year-olds had fillings. In 1993, this figure was only five in 10. (CSO)

The proportion of children who tried smoking by the age of 11 fell from 23 per cent in 1982 to 13 per cent in 1992. (CSO).