You could have knocked me down with a rolled-up copy of the Daily Mail after a deeply shocking report was made public last week. According to the NHS, our children are drinking less, taking fewer drugs and are dramatically less likely to smoke than in years past.
The proportion of children aged 11 to 15 who have taken drugs on at least one occasion fell from 29 per cent in 2001 to 22 per cent last year. The number of those using alcohol has dropped from 61 per cent to 51 per cent. Most shockingly of all, whereas in 1982, 53 per cent of children had smoked a fag, the figure was now 29 per cent.
It's outrageous. Britain's feral youths are brutishly and selfishly refusing to conform to stereotype. A Tory MP said – probably – that he was "disgusted and appalled" that children could be behaving in this fashion.
More surprising to me was a birthday barbecue I have just held for my 17-year-old daughter. She had invited all her friends and I imagined, naturally, that they would have sex in the bushes, smoke crack and start a riot. Instead, they thanked me politely and repeatedly for the food, rarely raised their voices and helped to clear up afterwards.
Surely this NHS report, and the bizarre behaviour of my daughter's (admittedly middle-class) friends, must be an anomaly. It can't be, can it, that British children are actually quite well behaved? Not if you believe what you read from academics and the press.
The Daily Telegraph April 2009: "Britain – one of the worst places to grow up". Daily Mail September 2009: "Britain's youngsters amongst world's worst for drinking, smoking and teenage pregnancy". Time magazine 2008: "British youngsters drink their continental European counterparts under the table". York University study 2006: the British have "some of the unhappiest children in Europe". Unicef report 2007: "[British children] regard themselves as less happy, and they drank more alcohol, took more drugs, and had more underage sex than children overseas .... They were also more prone to failure at school, to experience violence and bullying while suffering a greater number of unhappy relationships with both their families and peers."
Phew. No wonder we got the impression our children were in crisis. But what about that NHS report? What's going on here? Are those damn kids all right or are they not? And if the shocking news is true – that the kids are all right, after all – how could it have happened in these days of massive income inequality, teenage sexualisation and marriage breakdown?
I think the kids are just hunky-dory, thank you very much, largely because I have first-hand experience of what it was like to be a teenager in the 1970s. I was part of a nuclear family in the way that so many children today are not. My life was stable, and my school was a relatively good one.
But by the time I was 16 I had been repeatedly drunk, had taken some serious drugs and had spent a large proportion of my time vandalising the neighbourhood. Why? Because I was immensely, unremittingly and unstoppably bored. In those days, parents – even happily married ones – routinely put themselves before their children, so there were no days out to the West End or jolly jaunts to some "kids' experience" at one of the big museums (which were then dusty, dull and uninteresting to children, anyway). I spent most of my time loafing around the local golf links, smoking weed.
There was no money to spare, even though we were an "ordinary" family. In contrast, the summer holidays of 2010, except for the very poorest families, will probably be full of different kinds of pleasurable experiences – day trips, foreign holidays, visits to parks and museums.
Boredom has shrivelled. You don't need money in London to be able to visit a huge range of free attractions at the museums and galleries and at developments such as the Southbank and the London parks. Cities outside London, after 15 years of growth and development, are also much better equipped than they used to be.
Even if you don't leave your front door, technology has all but eliminated the boredom. There used to be three TV channels. Now there are hundreds. If you wanted to listen to a record you liked, you had to go and buy it as it wasn't available as a free download.
There were no social networking sites in the 1970s. There were no mobile phones, so people were hard to contact and meetings were difficult to organise. I feel that the huge global popularity of Facebook is a big factor in the alleviation of sheer monotony for this fortunate generation.
There were no personal computers with the wealth of entertainment that they offer – gaming, emailing, play sites and much more. The access to YouPorn alone would have filled most of my summer holiday leisure time. And there are very few families in Britain today who can't afford a PC, internet access, a mobile phone and a decent television, even if they are second-hand.
So common sense and anecdotal evidence tells me that it's no wonder that children are better behaved. I believe they're almost certainly happier, too. But is there any hard statistical or survey evidence to back this apparently counter-intuitive view up? Actually, there is quite a lot. Last week's NHS report was not a flash in the pan. A 2006 NHS report said that 9 per cent of school pupils reported taking drugs in the previous month, a fall from 11 per cent in 2005. Overall it had fallen from 12 per cent in 2001.
The European School Survey Project on Alcohol and Other Drugs in 2007 reported that British children, contrary to the Daily Mail report, were very far from the worst in Europe when it came to substance abuse. The highest lifetime use of any illicit drug was reported by teenagers in the Czech Republic (46 per cent), followed by Spain (38 per cent), the Isle of Man (35 per cent) and Switzerland (34 per cent). UK teens ranked a respectable ninth.
And that same Daily Mail "All kids miserable" report also buried another finding way down in the small print: that children in the UK enjoy school much more than nearly all of their international counterparts.
The clincher for me was a 2006 study about well-being – the largest ever undertaken – by MTV Networks International. It took six months to complete and encompassed 5,200 interviews conducted with eight- to 15-year-olds and 16- to 34-year-olds in 14 countries. Young people were surveyed in Argentina, Brazil, China, Denmark, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Japan, Mexico, South Africa, Sweden, the UK and the US.
Where did the British youngsters come? Not bottom, as you might expect, but a close sixth. And you have to include in that result the fact that our kids grew up as part the British Eeyore culture, reluctant to own up to any shaming feelings of happiness.
Maybe I'm guilty of Polyannaish naivety here. I cannot help but acknowledge that, for instance, knife crime among teenagers has risen significantly in the past decade, although the spikes periodically reported by the press are misleading.
In education, class sizes are larger than most other developed countries. Our levels of childhood poverty, although they have fallen in the past decade, remain among the highest in Europe. Our teenage pregnancy rates remain a disgrace.
But the narrative is not as clear-cut as you might expect. I suspect that the overwhelming majority of children are going to spend the next six weeks not in a state of boredom and lassitude, but are going to be indulged, pampered and amused.
The spending of adults on children is vastly greater than it once was – and the desire of adults to please children easily outweighs the more traditional desire of children to please adults.
I have no nostalgia whatever for the days of my childhood and youth. However, for all but the most dispossessed of this generation, I suspect these really are going to be the happiest days of their lives. I'm pleased and delighted for them. And what's more, if the ones I met at my daughter's 17th birthday barbecue are anything to go by, they thoroughly deserve it.Reuse content