British schoolchildren are among the most stressed, unhappy and “sedentary” in the developed world, academics and authors warned today.
Growing numbers of children are failing to develop properly at a young age because of the toxic pressures of modern life, it was claimed.
The powerful lobby of childcare experts said that many “commercially vulnerable” under-16s were spending too much time sat unsupervised in front of televisions, games consoles and the internet in their bedroom instead of playing outdoors.
Children are also among the most tested in the Western world after being pushed into formal schooling at an increasingly young age and more likely to be exposed to junk food and poor diets than elsewhere, they said.
The comments were made as a new group – the Save Childhood Movement – was launched today in bid to highlight the multiple threats facing young people.
It is being backed by leading figures such as Baroness Greenfield, the Oxford University neuroscientist, Sally Goddard-Blythe, director of the Institute for Neuro-physiological psychology in Chester, Prof Lilian Katz, an expert in early childhood education at Illinois University, and Dr Richard House, senior lecturer in psychotherapy at Roehampton University.
Wendy Ellyatt, the group’s development director, who is also an author and consultant in early education, said the launch reflected growing concerns over the state of modern childhood.
It will campaign on a range of issues covering education, health, technology and commercial pressures that hamper children’s development, she suggested.
The move follows the publication of a landmark report from Unicef last year that found British parents were trapping their children in a cycle of “compulsive consumerism” by showering them with toys and designer labels instead of spending quality time with them.
This came after a 2007 study by the UN children’s agency ranked Britain bottom out of 21 developed countries for child welfare and third from bottom for educational standards.
Mrs Ellyatt said: “Recent research that shows that children in the UK are some of the most pressurised, unhappy and commercially vulnerable in the world.
“Children are living increasingly sedentary, media-saturated lives and are spending less and less time in contact with the natural world.
“This is having profound consequences for our children’s health, especially with regard to what has been called the ‘modern epidemic’ of obesity.
“With increasing fears about traffic and stranger-danger, children’s freedom to play outside has been profoundly restricted and yet statistically the most dangerous place to be is actually in their own home and bedrooms, especially with so many children now having access to unsupervised digital technology.
“This situation has not been helped by risk-averse policy-making.”
Advisers to the group include Prof Philip Gammage, former dean of education at Nottingham University, Dr Aric Sigman, author and fellow of the Society of Biology, and Sue Palmer, former primary school head and authority of the book Toxic Childhood.
Dr House said children’s lives had become increasingly “distorted” over the last decade.
“As parents and citizens, we all certainly need to take more responsibility for the worlds we create for our children,” he said.
“But politicians and policy-makers also have a grave responsibility to minimise the toxic impact of those aspects of modern technological society over which they have some purchase.
“I have long advocated the appointment of a new Minister for Children with a seat in the Cabinet, whose sole task would be to oversee the likely impact on children of all new government legislation,”
A Department of Education spokesman said: “Many parents are fed up with their children being surrounded by adult images and being targeted aggressively to get the latest ‘must-have’ items.
“Reg Bailey undertook a review on the commercialisation and sexualisation of childhood and his recommendations have already prompted swift action from industry and regulators.
“We’re making progress and have already set up the Parent Port website to keep the pressure up on businesses so they listen and act on parents’ concerns. We are also working with the Chartered Institute of Marketing to explore what more can be done.”