(Nov. 2012) On Nov. 19, British journalist George Monbiot wrote in The Guardian about a “second environmental crisis, just as potent as the first.” He refers to the “lamentable state of modern childhood in which children are prisoners in their own homes,” and cites corroborating statistics, from a report recently published by The National Trust.
In a single generation since the 1970s, children’s radius of activity – the area around their home where they are allowed to roam unsupervised – has declined by almost 90 percent. In 1971, 80 percent of 7- and 8-year-olds walked to school, often alone or with their friends. Two decades later, fewer than 10 percent do – almost all accompanied by their parents.
Fewer than 25 percent of children regularly use their local ‘patch of nature,’ compared to over half of all adults when they were children. Fewer than one in 10 children regularly play in wild places compared to almost half a generation ago. Children spend so little time outdoors that they are unfamiliar with some of the most common wild creatures.
Evidence suggests that this sedentary, indoor lifestyle is having profound consequences on children’s health, especially with regard to the ‘modern epidemic’ of obesity. Three in 10 children aged between 2 and 15 are either overweight or obese, a dramatic increase from 1995 to 2008, with obesity rising from 11 percent to almost 17 percent in boys, and from 12 percent to 15 percent in girls.
Other physical health problems on the increase include vitamin D deficiency (an underlying cause of rickets), shortsightedness, and asthma. There has also been a reduction in children’s ability to do physical tasks, producing ‘a generation of weaklings,’ and a major decline in children’s cardiorespiratory health, all of which have been attributed to a decrease in the time children spend outdoors compared with previous generations.
There is an ‘epidemic of mental illness’ among children, with significant increases between 1974 and 1999 in the number of children exhibiting conduct, behavioral, and emotional problems. One in 10 children aged between 5 and 16 has a clinically diagnosed mental health disorder. One in 12 adolescents is self-harming. About 35,000 children in England are being prescribed anti-depressants. (In the U.S., that number is 4 million.) A lack of engagement with nature also results in declining emotional resilience and a declining ability to assess risk.
In his book “Last Child in the Woods,” Richard Louv writes, “For a new generation, nature is more abstraction than reality. Increasingly, nature is something to watch, to consume, to wear – to ignore.” Today’s children no longer experience the real world, but rather increasingly live in a virtual world, through television, the Internet, electronic games, and online social networks.
Britain’s children watch more than 2.5 hours of television a day, every single day of the year, an increase of 12 percent since 2007. They spend more than 20 hours a week online, mostly on social networking sites, and as they grow older, electronic addictions increase. Britain’s 11-to 15-year-olds spend about 7.5 hours a day in front of a screen, an increase of 40 percent in a decade. Robert Michael Pyle, in Oryx, The International Journal of Conservation (Cambridge University Press), has called this ‘the extinction of experience.’
Reflecting on my own childhood, one parental mandate comes to mind more than any other: “Go outside and play.” I spent untold hours exploring the woods next to our house and the barn and fields at my grandparents’ house. I concocted entire worlds in these places, imagining that I owned a horse and was capable of all manner of heroic deeds. I experienced first-hand nature’s changing seasons, along with her bounty of flora and fauna. The trees and the streams were my sanctuary, my inspiration, my salvation. I knew every detail of every path and clearing and secret place. Those memories live in every cell in my body today, and I can resurrect them as if they happened yesterday.
English naturalist Rick Baker (from the BBC’s “The Really Wild Show”) observed, “You’ll never forget your first badger – just as you’ll never remember your highest score on a computer game – no matter how important it seemed at the time.”
Children need down time, freedom from control and programming, anonymity to explore and experience the real world. As parents, we are supposed to teach them, not control their every thought and move. By enabling electronic addictions and ignoring or demonizing the natural world, we are creating a future peopled by inept, uninformed, incurious zombies. Yank the plugs and tell your children to go outside and play.
Chris Hoffman lives in the village of Sherburne in her 150+ year-old house where she caters to the demands of her four cats, attempts to grow heirloom tomatoes and herbs and reads voraciously. She passionately pursues various avenues with like-minded friends to preserve and protect a sustainable rural lifestyle for everyone in Central New York.