A GENERATION of British children are locking themselves away in their bedrooms where they are increasingly turning to television and computer games as their sole sources of entertainment, an extraordinary new survey has found.
The indoor migration - away from traditional outdoor games - has largely been prompted by parental fears about safety.Busy parents unable to spend as much time as they wish with their children - or to guarantee their safety if they are not with them - consider computers and television an easy option. According to the report by the London School of Economics, many children also feel they have no alternative source of entertainment outside their bedroom walls.
"Children prefer to get out," said Dr Sonia Livingstone, a co-author of the report, Young People, New Media, "but the lack of alternatives makes the media-rich environment most of them can enjoy in the home today more important."
Today's children are indeed the media rich. One in five has their own VCR, two-thirds play on computer games while 68 per cent have a personal stereo.
Coupled with such access to technology is the trend towards the bedroom being the sole private space for children. While teenagers sulking in their bedrooms is nothing new, the study finds that children from the age of nine are turning to their bedrooms as a place to socialise. Most striking are the two-thirds of all children who have a television in their rooms (a figure which rises to nearly three-quarters among working class families).
One consequence of children watching television alone is unpoliced viewing. Nearly a third of children ignore the 9pm watershed, despite 82 per cent of parents considering it a "very good idea". Many parents insist they enforce the watershed, but some children gave a different story. While one father told researchers he drew the line at 9pm, his son in the next room said: "They tell us to go up at about 9.30 or 10 or something, and then we just watch until they come up and tell us to switch it off... at 11, 11.30."
Lisa Wallis, from Wantage in Oxfordshire, echoes the concerns of many parents interviewed in the research. She has two daughters, Poppy, seven, and Molly, four, both of whom enjoy playing computer games. "To be fair, they are not too bad," Mrs Wallis says. "Poppy perhaps plays on the computer for around three hours a week. She also likes playing out in the garden. But there is a concern about letting them out. I think it's a shame that they are not allowed to grow up in the way that we did. They are missing out on a lot of things and that is sad."
Dr Mark Griffiths, a psychologist at the Nottingham Trent University, said there was a series of problems associated with excessive use of computer games. Children could become genuinely addicted, then display the classic symptoms of withdrawal and obsession. Studies in the United States had shown that in extreme cases, children as young - or as old - as six, seven and eight were wetting themselves or defecating rather than stopping playing. "They are so engrossed in their games that they will not stop for anything," he said.
Parents often feel helpless. The survey found that once children reached their early teens it is impractical for parents to try and intervene and limit their use of computers and televisions. As a result, parents believe they are increasingly dependent on the judgement of broadcasters and regulators. This is especially true in regard to television.
But although watching television accounts for more than half of the five hours a day they devote to the media, today's children are somewhat reluctant couch potatoes. When asked what their idea of a good day was, only one in seven said that they would turn to TV. If they had the chance, they would rather get out of the house and go to the cinema (41 per cent), see friends (39 per cent) or play sport (35 per cent).
But fears about children's safety - heightened by reports of abductions and child murders - are preventing parents from letting their children out to play. Only 11 per cent of parents say that the streets where they live are "very safe" for their child, compared with 56 per cent who felt similarly secure in the neighbourhood in which they grew up. In the cities, children find themselves imprisoned by violence - in rural areas, by isolation.
As use of PCs proliferates, reading skill are expected to suffer. The 36 per cent of children who have access to a PC in the home say that they are now twice as likely to use that as a source of information than a book. In fact, the report suggests that while children still read a book for an average of 15 minutes a day (a figure that has not altered in 40 years), Dr Livingstone believes Britain may be on the cusp of a significant transition. "Overall, the image of books is poor," she said. "They are widely seen as boring, old-fashioned, frustrating and altogether too much effort. We might be at a pivotal moment when children will inevitably turn to other sources for information."
Dr Richard Woolfson, a child psychologist and fellow of the British Psychology Society, said he was troubled that children were increasingly staying indoors. "Social interaction is a very important part of development. You cannot do that stuck in front of a colourful screen no matter how stimulating that screen may be," Dr Woolfson said.
Jenni Smith, a consultant to the Early Learning Centre, said parents needed to encourage their children in other activities. "You have to set the agenda. You can't leave it to them," she said. "If a child is given the choice between doing nothing and playing with a computer game, they will always choose the computer game. But there are lots of other things that parents can do with their children - projects, painting, visits to the library."
When parents were asked to choose which change in society they would most like to see, the largest number, 63 per cent, said "more emphasis on family life". Most of their children said when they grew up, the most important thing for them would be "a happy family life", with a "good education" the second most important aspect.
The survey also found that the biggest concern to parents was the threat of drugs. A total of 51 per cent of parents said they were concerned about their children abusing drugs, while 47 per cent worried about their child's job prospects.
Thirty-nine per cent cited crime as a concern.
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