Leading article: Misplaced nostalgia for a more innocent age

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The Independent Online

Ever since the time of the ancient Romans old men have complained that the world is going to the dogs, that nostalgia isn't what it used to be. In recent days we have heard anxieties aired about the state of modern childhood. A sinister cocktail of junk food, marketing, over-competitive schooling and electronic entertainment is poisoning that most innocent of ages, a powerful lobby of experts said. Yesterday the Archbishop of Canterbury weighed in to join them.

What do all these members of the great and the good have in common? They are all old. Politesse might require us to call them middle-aged nowadays. But when it comes to the issue of childhood we can forget the usual euphemism: they are old. And they have fallen prey to the traditional lament of old men - and women - that fings ain't wot they used to be.

It is not that they don't have a point. They have many. Perhaps too many. They are concerned about the escalating incidence of childhood depression and behavioural and developmental problems. They are worried about a rise in substance abuse, violence and self-harm. In schools they fear that the new emphasis on testing has created a climate of anxiety which is unsettling pupils. They lament that in our great pains to protect children from physical harm, we seem to have lost sight of their emotional and social needs.

These are serious issues. But they are issues which are separate and each of which needs to be addressed on its merit. What they do not require is aggregating together under the heading of a "crisis in childhood".

The giveaway is the other issues which have been gathered under this melodramatic heading. Children are eating junk food, having junk play and being exposed to junk video games. They are being pushed by market forces to act and dress like mini-adults. There is a breath of mild hysteria in the air.

There are obvious responses to the worriers' individual points. Young people may need to be encouraged to eat more healthily, but that can be done, as the Government's adoption of Jamie Oliver's school meals initiative shows. The burden of testing - itself an important way of monitoring and maintaining standards - has grown too onerous, but the authorities can trim back on it, especially in the early years and perhaps also restoring to sixth-formers a year free from major public testing. Advertising which is inappropriate could be closely monitored on children's television programmes. Video games can be given graded certificates to guide parents into purchases appropriate to the child's age.

What we do not need is a blanket over-reaction which ignores the advantages and opportunities the modern world is creating for our young people. Mobile phones do not foster solipsism; they bring increased contact and communication, albeit in a format which can seem unfamiliar to older folk. Computer games and the internet develop skills of a different kind, but ones which are as capable of opening up the outside world to our children with a scope and ease which our parents could never have imagined. Modern marketing techniques can manipulate, but they can also increase awareness and choice.

Today's children have access to more diverse information than any before them. They are better fed, better housed and more widely travelled than any previous generation. They have opportunities that their parents and grandparents can only envy. They have also developed a healthy scepticism towards authority that, while annoying to some, bodes well for the future. That the world is no longer as it was 20 or 50 years ago should prompt an appreciation of what has been gained as well as lost. Take a sober look at modern childhood by all means, but this moral panic is quite out of place.

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