Driving Society Forward.
Lazy Brit Kids?
Glenn Rikowski, London, 10th November 2006
Over the last few years, and particularly over the last few months, a number of newspaper and Internet articles have appeared suggesting that British children are lazy, computer- and TV-obsessed, chunky and depressed individuals bulked up on junk food. This image is counterbalanced by its opposite: the work oppressed and stressed kid that is tested to distraction. This article explores these different images of children in Britain today as represented in the press and some popular science magazines. It isn’t an exhaustive, or even an extensive survey, but from the material gathered the battle lines are clear. So, do we have lazy Brit kids? Or, are they hard done by, work-driven and pitiable young people?
Lazy Brit Kids?
The idea that children in Britain today are indolent, self-indulgent and sedentary was recently advanced by an article on the Internet, which was based on a survey of 3,500 young people in the UK, USA, Australia, Germany, India, China, Russia and South Africa (AOL Lifestyle, 2006). It was argued that:
“British children could soon be the laziest on the planet according to a global study. The average British child now spends the equivalent of six months watching TV or playing computer games between the ages of seven and 16 … [And] UK kids spend 9.4 hours glued to a console or TV screen each week, just behind Australian children, who spend 10 hours a week relaxing in front of a screen” (AOL Lifestyle, 2006).
Furthermore, UK kids on average spend only 6.9 hours ‘being active’ a week – 26 per cent less time than that spent in front of a TV or computer screen.
My initial reaction was twofold. First, schools demand that kids spend ever more time looking at screens, as more computers come into schools and are used increasingly, and as schools demand more computer research from kids; looking up material on google, and so on. I’ve noticed this with my own kids, especially when working for GCSE coursework. Secondly I thought about the time I spend looking at a computer screen and the thousands of office workers doing likewise in the City of London a few miles away. Many jobs require heavy use of computers today; so are not schools just preparing kids for work, as employers are continually moaning that they should be? But this argument implies that we subject kids to the full force of capitalist work, as adults are so subjected.
However, as someone who gets Repetitive Strain Injury from time to time, and is also overweight, I can see that Fenton’s (2006) report might have a point. For Fenton, computer games and ‘bedroom culture’ are causing kids to put on weight, and to eat poorly (as they eat junk in front of the screen rather having proper meals), which can lead to depression, illness and health problems in later life. Drawing from a report called Toxic Childhood by Sue Palmer of Roehampton University, Fenton notes that:
“A sinister cocktail of junk food, marketing, over-competitive schooling and electronic entertainment is poisoning childhood, a power lobby of academics and children’s experts says today.”
This is a more interesting analysis of the condition of Brit kids today than the AOL Lifestyle report. In particular, fingering over-competitive schooling as a factor making for the ‘death of childhood’ (Fenton, 2006) is worth considering. The next section examines this point.
Stressed-out Brit Kids?
A number of commentators, on the other hand have emphasised how hard our kids are forced to work today. Thus, Frean (2004a-b), Morris (2002) and Revill (2004) point towards the numbers of tests and exams our kids have compared with those in other countries. Morris (2002) notes that:
“Pupils in their second year of primary school show signs of anxiety such as appetite loss, insomnia, bed-wetting, forgetfulness and depression, researchers found.”
The stress caused by SATs was particularly significant, noted Morris. Over-testing can also be linked to the UK having the ‘worst class sizes’ in the developed capitalist world (Slater, 2006), further generating the frenzied existence of our school children. Slater’s report (2006) also shows that the gap between UK state and private schools in terms of class size is bigger than anywhere else.
Young children are expected to be concerned about careers and their employability at ever younger ages too, here in the UK (see Rikowski, 2005). Even five year olds need careers advice, it seems (Ibid.). And when kids try to escape all this pressure from schools through truancy then there are ever more anti-truancy initiatives aimed at ‘keeping up the pressure’ (DfES, 2006). Furthermore, when young people stare into the future they might view further insecurity, pressure and debt flowing from being a higher education student (Wilson, 2006). Where higher education might once have been viewed as liberatory and an adventure, it is now a financial quagmire (see Rikowski, 2001).
Looking at the condition of young people from this angle, then perhaps the medicalisation of their lives, with increased use of behaviour-modifying drugs such as Ritalin (see Concar, 2002) and the spectre of 8 year olds on Prozac (Hills, 2006), is to be depressingly expected. The ADD and ADHD Industry is ever quicker to medicalise the plight of today’s school kids (Jacobs, 2004).
Never had it so good?
Yet recently there has been a backlash against all this pessimism about school kids and youth. A couple of articles in The Observer recently (Bennett, 2006; and Martin, 2006) indicate that parents now spend more time, not less (as previously thought), with their kids now than in the 1970s. Though more mothers were housewives, and both parents worked fewer hours then, they actually spent less time with their kids. Today’s kids are not suffering relative neglect by their parents as compared with 30 years ago.
Conclusion: Kids in a Social Recession?
These contradictory images of childhood, school kids and youth in Britain today are all demeaning and pathetic in their various ways. Jonathan Rutherford (2006) has noted that ‘the debate about childhood is beginning to erupt’. Brit kids, like their parents, are in a ‘social recession’; a time when capitalist society has no positive images to offer. This is why we need visions of the good society, he argues. Not just to give people hope but to strive actively to achieve it.
Yet there are other images of childhood and youth that are not hopeless. The many young people that demonstrated against the Iraq war, and the kids that organised school strikes against the war, provide images of confidence and strength in belief and action. The kids that go on school strikes in support of staff, or against heavy-handed managerialism, are also an inspiration. There are the many young people that get involved in voluntary work. The young people in various MySpace political groups, the recent protests against top-up fees, and some of the fantastic music, poetry and drama produced by young people today: these (and many more) are all images of young people that really give me hope.
AOL Lifestyle (2006) Brit kids are world’s second laziest, online at: http://lifestyle.aol.co.uk/brit-kids-are-worlds-second-laziest/article/20060905123909990005 [Accessed 06/09/2006].
Bennett, R. (2006) Children never had it so good, The Times, 4th October, p.3.
Concar, D. (2002) Childhood is not what it used to be, New Scientist, Vol.175 No.2357, p.25.
DfES (2006) Tackling Pupil Absence – Keeping Up the Pressure, DfES Press Notice, 2006/0136, 21st September, Department for Education and Skills: http://www.dfes.gov.uk/pns/DisplayPN.cgi?pn_id=2006_0136
Fenton, B. (2006) Junk food ‘is poisoning our children’, The Daily Telegraph, 12th September, p.1.
Frean, A. (2004a) It’s not fair, say stressed out children, The Times, 27th February, p.3.
Frean, A. (2004b) The young are ‘over-examined and overloaded’, The Times, 27th February, p.3.
Hills, S. (2006) Children of 8 can be given Prozac, London Metro, 8th June, p.1.
Jacobs, B. (2004) ADD & ADHD: Epidemic of a phantom disease, Nexus: New Times Magazine, Vol.12 No.2 (February-March), pp.11-16 & 73-76.
Martin, L. (2006) Our lost childhood? You must be joking …, The Observer, 17th September, p.28.
Morris, S. (2002) Primary pupils stressed by exams, The Guardian, 30th December, p.5.
Revill, J. (2004) Ease up on tests and give kids a break, The Observer, 19th September, p.31.
Rikowski, G. (2001) The B Generation, a paper prepared for the May Day Monopoly events in central London, 1st May: http://www.flowideas.co.uk/?page=articles&sub=B%20Generation
Rikowski, G. (2005) Kids in the Land of No Dreams, London, 7th October, online at: http://www.flowideas.co.uk/?page=articles&sub=Kids%20in%20the%20Land%20of%20No%20Dreams
Shah, H. & Rutherford, J. (2006) This vision of a good society can life the nation out of social recession, The Guardian, 20th September, p.28.
Slater, J. (2006) UK class sizes ‘worst in the world’, Times Educational Supplement, 15th September, p.11.
Wilson, G. (2006) The IPOD Generation: Insecure, pressured, over-taxed, debt-ridden, The Daily Telegraph, 18th September, p.1.
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