Sex 'n' drugs and home for Neighbours Massacre of the innocents

Of course children are different today. We've changed the rules
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It's been a bad week for parents. "We're breeding monsters of kids who are no longer responsible for their actions," said Gill Taylor, a 36-year-old drama teacher, on Channel 4's Dispatches on Wednesday. She had secretly videoed troublemakers in her classroom in order to make a point about the absence of discipline in schools. Her point was underlined by the coming to trial of the 15-year-old accused of stabbing headmaster Philip Lawrence and the arrival on general release of Kids, an American film presenting children as streetwise toughies and teenage sex as a nightmare of despoiled virgins and imminent HIV.

Kids is a horror film about a lost boy, as much a dreadful warning as Trainspotting. What makes it hit a raw nerve is that it is first and foremost about sexual initiation. We can go to Trainspotting, admire its brilliance, deplore the drug culture - and comfort ourselves that we are not on heroin. But sex is a natural part of our existence and we know that the way it is first approached is highly likely to affect our experience of it ever after.

Ordinary parents hate the idea of children seeing brutal and explicit sex scenes. It is just possible that today's ordinary children, who have sat through session after session of clinically accurate sex education and pored over Judy Blume's Forever rather than being brought up on Peter Pan may be less squeamish.

It is just possible that starting from horror rather than romance will make the real thing a pleasant surprise. But it is also just possible that at a moment when our children are inching towards private experiment, the nightmare vision Kids presents will shock them into revulsion - or worse, make their hesitant loving fumblings seem small beer compared with the sensations aroused by brutality. It is, after all, also in this week that a man profoundly abused in his own childhood was jailed for life for murdering a nine-year-old boy.

Faced with classroom chaos and Kids, commentators have naturally resorted to beating their breasts and lamenting a lost generation, a sick society and the end of childhood. Every day it seems that a younger child is sexually despoiled - or turns to murder. As teenagers enter the twilight zone that is adolescence to the beat of heavy metal and the thrill of Ecstasy, never have adults felt more removed from the young.

The very hours they keep have moved out of phase: at weekends and in the holidays they limp home from clubs as their parents are making the early morning tea, and barely raise their bleary-eyed heads before lunch time. Even then they are more likely to be talking to friends on the telephone than taking an intelligent interest in all their parents could teach them.

But what is really going on in the hearts and minds of the next generation? Surveys and opinion polls present a very different picture from the one which sells newspapers and summons queues to the cinema. The vast majority are well-behaved school-attenders, not least because they are nervous about their job prospects.

Yes, three-quarters of them have tried drugs, by and large soft ones, and sex, but only rarely with promiscuous reiteration; 84 per cent look up to their parents; 72 per cent of 11- to 15-year-olds are already planning to get married rather than cohabit (more than statistics suggest will actually do so); only 10 per cent intend to live alone. They do watch more television than their parents, but, since George Steiner says in the current issue of Prospect that there is now more creative talent in television commercials than in the average new novel, they could just be on to a good thing.

I'm always pleasantly surprised when I raise my eyes from the horrors blazed in the headlines to actually look at young people as they go about their daily business, trooping off to school in uniforms, working as waiters and shop assistants on Saturdays to buy the big brand names that give them street cred, bunching up together on the sofa like a heap of puppies to watch Neighbours as punctually as I switch on The Archers.

Certainly there is a disastrous rump of defiant, miserable and depraved children whom society has failed. Their plight needs to be highlighted. But before we castigate ourselves as a society unduly - before, more importantly, we give all young people the impression that they are living in a peculiarly unfeeling and brutal world - we should bear in mind that we are after all attempting something rather more ambitious than has ever been achieved by any society in history: nothing less than universal uniform success.

We have changed the rules of the game. Instead of the bulk of the population being told to accept their lot on the sidelines of life, we want everybody to be able to win prizes. But instead of congratulating ourselves on the enormous strides we have made towards extending opportunity, we become obsessive over a degree of failure which is, quite frankly, not bad in a crowded population of 55 million souls.

Since we trumpet such failure more loudly than achievement, it is hardly surprising that the young, who believe on the whole what we tell them, are unusually depressed about the future. They know too little history to understand how far we have come in aspiring to a caring rather than a status-based society. To some of them the brave new world of choices is frighteningly competitive; the national curriculum is a Grand National in which they know they will fall. To such young people, once apprenticed to trades they could cope with at the age of 12 or 14, the only way to disguise their sense of inadequacy, faced with academic hurdles beyond their comprehension, is to disrupt as many of the other runners and riders as they can.

Moreover, in the past 20 years, the experience of childhood has changed dramatically. Our social institutions lag well behind the technological sophistication of our world. Now that education is imposed from the age of five to 16, increasingly often to 18, the young grow up more subject to the laws of their peer groups than those of adults. Who or what is really influencing our children now that they spend the bulk of their waking days at school, talking to friends on the telephone, watching television or exploring the wild new frontier of the Internet?

Teachers today have an extraordinarily heavy burden. If we are really going to leave them in almost sole charge of an entire generation - high- flyers, solid citizens and the academically challenged alike - serious thought needs to be given to bolstering their morale and their status. Only 54 per cent of 11- to 15-year-olds say they look up to their teachers. I am uneasily aware that something fairly similar to the classroom anarchy filmed by Ms Taylor happens every week on Byker Grove, Grange Hill and Heartbreak High.

The decline in respect for teachers makes the quality of the media more important than it would otherwise be. Television and film are now the central forum for the assertion of lifestyles. We have shilly-shallied for too long over the business of exerting a value-laden censorship over them.

More worrying about Kids than how it could affect young people's expectations of sex, is what it says to them about adult values, about a world in which sharp commercial brains calculate that the making of such a film - or of Natural Born Killers, Copycat or Child's Play - will be a business proposition because it will attract large audiences.

It is open to us not to condone what we believe will deprave and corrupt. If we let Kids slip by without protest, then who knows what the next frontier of visually explicit horror will be. Brilliantly made snuff movies are still snuff movies. In a week when we are all grieving for Daniel Handley who was, remember, filmed as he was brutally sexploited, perhaps we owe it to our children, to all children, to make a stand not just for old- fashioned decency but for new-fashioned and loudly proclaimed standards of what is and is not acceptable to us.

There have been straws in the wind. A peculiarly complacent collection of censors were recently moved on from the British Board of Film Censors. Natural Born Killers is not to be released on video, thus officially classifying it as undesirable (and it is that statement which is important, not the irrelevant fact that it may appear on the black market). Dustin Hoffman stood up at Cannes and appealed for a respite from violence on the screen. His point was taken up by Sir Peter Ustinov this week. "I think violence on television films does have an effect," he said. "The whole copycat situation has not been analysed properly. We don't need statistics here, we need common sense."

We have a great deal to be proud of in Britain, a long tradition of common sense, decency and fair-mindedness. We need to act upon it. And all may not yet be lost. In the same month that the US sent us Kids, one of their major publishing houses bought the rights to Enid Blyton. How will the Famous Five measure up to the streetwise skateboarders of 52nd Street? Your guess is as good as mine.