Robert Winston: Leave the kids alone

We know children are suffering from depression, autism, sleep deprivation, asthma and poor diet. And why? Not because we have lost the perfect childhood of generations past, but because we are a more caring society now than at any other time in our history
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In an impressive fit of nostalgia, The Daily Telegraph launched its campaign to "halt the death of childhood" this week. The stimulus for this worthy cause was a letter to that newspaper, claiming that modern life leads to more depression among children. More than one hundred of the Great and Good signed it, lamenting how our children's well-being was greatly threatened by "lack of understanding" of the "realities and subtleties of child development" by politicians and the public. The signatories included worthies such as Dr Penelope Leach, Baroness Greenfield and Sir Richard Bowlby, a large number of academics and psychiatrists, children's authors such as Philip Pullman, and the environmental campaigner Sir Jonathon Porritt.

How often good, intelligent people, in assuming the moral high ground, can be seduced into ignoring obvious facts of the moral case they attempt to argue. For a start, it is highly dubious whether childhood depression is more frequent now than formerly. Certainly it is being diagnosed more frequently - as are many other conditions related to psychological problems in childhood. And this is not just true of British children. Depression is being diagnosed with increasing frequency in the US, in Australia and on the Continent, as well as in some developing countries.

A recent study by Dr Nicola Madge and colleagues from the National Children's Bureau, London, of 30,000 adolescents attending schools in different countries including Australia, Belgium, Hungary and England, is alarming. In four out of the seven countries they studied, at least one in 10 girls had harmed themselves in the previous year. Often this followed drug abuse, or was imitating another family member. Many of these children had low self-esteem - common in depressed people of all ages.

Depression is probably proportionately as common among younger children. Childhood depression tends to be more common in inner cities, being most frequently related to serious social deprivation, bullying, domestic violence, wartime experience and famine. It is, for example, a serious problem among children who are traumatised refugees. But - most relevant - the biggest problem is poverty, not our materialistic, affluent society as these letter writers suggest. And it may be associated with other factors. Dr Alice Gregory at King's College London emphasises evidence gained from her studies of twins - depression is quite often factored in a child's genes.

Myriads of serious scientific papers on childhood depression have been published in recent years. And related disorders, such as autism, eczema, sleep disturbance and asthma have also been a focus. All seem to be on the rise. The problem is that they are all being increasingly diagnosed. As human society learns to care more for children, such problems seem ever more prevalent, because we look for them more assiduously. But no good research has satisfactorily shown that depression is more common in children than it was, say, 30 or 40 years ago.

But what about other aspects of wellbeing? The pastimes that children find so engaging are an easy target for reactionary censure. Electronic screens and computer games are held as an example of a "poor"substitute for "real play". But are they unhealthy? In a recent Portuguese study of more than 3,000 children aged between seven and nine,prolonged television watching was associated with an increased risk of obesity. But time spent playing on a computer was not - there was no evidence that this sedentary activity was physically dangerous. And it happens that the Portuguese like their TV dinners, possibly one reason why there was a slightly increased risk of extra body fat in these children. But studies such as this have little meaning in isolation - much will depend on how much physical activity such children have at school. But we cannot escape the fact that researchers have clearly shown that computer games produce many benefits for children, including better problem-solving and improved hand/eye co-ordination.

Television has, in fact, been one of the greatest boons for children. Its power to educate and delight means children are much better informed about the world and more aware of important issues. Of course, statistics suggesting that almost half of all British four-year-olds have a TV in their bedroom are worrying. Unsupervised watching for long periods is unlikely to be healthy. It must be better for small children to watch in the comforting presence of a trusted adult.

How about TV violence? Concern is understandable but it is clear that all except very young children can discern between simulated violence and the real thing. Scientists in the US have followed children until adulthood; it is staggering that the average American child will have seen some 16,000 TV and film "murders" by his late teens. But there is inadequate evidence that this leads to much damage. One study shows as many as 18 per cent of children may have their behaviour slightly affected in the longer term, but even these figures are not borne out by most studies or data from other countries.

Campaigners rail against junk food. Too many children are not eating a balanced diet. And there is a serious epidemic of obesity in the West leading to a higher risk of diabetes and heart disease in middle age.

But poor diet is far more to do with social deprivation, and figures indicate the incidence of childhood obesity is highest in the poorest families in all Western societies. We should not forget that, overall, children from all sections of society are taller and healthier than ever, with a far lower childhood death rate and a greater life expectancy. I remember eating in school in the years after the Second World War. Most of my friends had miserable portions of Spam with an inedible, glutinous pudding served in containers we called "coffins". As a vegetarian, I had a lump of loathsome cheese and some bread. Yes, hooray for Jamie Oliver, but would he have had the chance to make such an impact in the 1940s and 50s?

Bullying is also an issue for the Great and Good. Where were these eminent souls in the 1950s? I went to school with butterflies of fear every day for years - from primary school onwards - not just worried about being bullied by classmates, but by teachers. Most boys in my senior school were caned by teachers - even other boys, the prefects, were allowed to cane younger children. I remember being forced into boxing rings against bigger opponents, by a hectoring bully of a master - who was widely considered to have homoerotic inclinations - and being watched with enjoyment by some prefects.

But there is one area where modern children are seriously deprived. We no longer permit them any exposure to perceived risk. Health and safety concerns prevent children from undertaking "dangerous" chemical experiments or detailed biological dissection in schools, and this may be why fewer of them are turned on to the wondrous fascination of science. Teachers are fearful of taking children outside the school environment for anything remotely adventurous because of the apparent legal consequences of accident or injury. And we drive children in cumbersome SUVs on school runs. My journey to primary school was a long walk, alone, then a three-mile ride on the 23 bus; by the age of eight I travelled alone for 50 minutes on the Tube across London. Are there really more attacks on children now? Or are we just too frightened of what seems to be a threatening environment? Four weeks ago, I was in the Bloomfield Museum of Science in Jerusalem. The place swarmed with children from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds, most under the age of 10. Dozens of them were crying at the exit, simply because they did not want to go home. Every exhibit was hands-on. And many had sharp corners and projecting bits - they would be impossible in our own excellent science museums. The caring staff there told me accidents were unknown - these children learnt to deal with risk. But perhaps living in a highly risky environment such as Israel puts risk into perspective.

There is one other difficult issue in our affluent society. This Friday I spent the afternoon in a pre-school nursery in west London. The children were clearly happy and well stimulated by the excellent staff. But these children were there from 8am for an average of 10 hours. Life in many inner cities is now so expensive that it is normal for both parents to work a full day. This may not be disastrous, but parents need to find some quality time in the day, and this will be difficult for a tired four-year-old by six or sevenin the evening.

Childhood is not dead. Children were worse off when we were hunter-gatherers; they were threatened in medieval times and exploited during the Industrial Revolution. Was it any better in the time of Charles Kingsley or Charles Dickens? In the past 100 years there has been no time when our responsibility towards our children has had more prominence on the political and social agenda. A good example is the Children's Society's Good Childhood inquiry, launched tomorrow, in which a panel of experts will take evidence on what should define a quality childhood in today's society.

Hopefully, this will be a chance to look constructively at real evidence, rather than merely making a knee-jerk response.

Lord Winston is Emeritus Professor of Fertility Studies at Imperial College London