Bigger, Taller, Heavier
Paranoia, childhood obesity and the future of school furniture
Does your child come home from school complaining of aches and pains? Do they, perhaps, suffer from backache?
According to a report issued recently by the British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA), increasing numbers of children are running the risk of back problems caused by spending the school day jammed into ill-fitting desks and chairs.
And why is school furniture so uncomfortable? Well, according to BESA, it’s because children are so much bigger now – taller, but also heavier. “Although our starting point was not a question of obesity, when we looked the average child today is very different to a child in the 1960s, which is the last time children were actually measured for determining measures of furniture”, remarked BESA’s director general.
We shouldn’t be surprised. In 2003, 27 per cent of children under eleven in England were either overweight or obese. In the US, where different methods to measure obesity are used, nearly 20% of children aged 6-11 were classified as overweight or obese in 2004. The numbers have almost doubled in a decade.
How did so many children get to be overweight before they’ve even reached the ripe old age of eleven? The answer, of course, is a complex one. If adults are eating much less healthily than they used to, so are their kids. Instead of spending their evenings playing outside, children now have the delights of multi-channel TV, computer games, and the Internet to choose from. And then there’s the fact that increasing numbers of us just won’t let our children outside on their own.
More than 40 per cent of UK adults questioned in a recent survey thought that fourteen was the earliest age at which children should be allowed to go out unsupervised. Two-thirds of ten-year-olds have never been to a shop or the park by themselves, and fewer than one in ten eight-year-olds walk to school alone.
What are we so worried about? Well, it’s partly that our children are going to be abducted by a paedophile. And who wouldn’t be worried? All of us can call to mind horrific cases of child abduction and murder. The world seems a much more dangerous place today than it did when we were kids. It’s a world, indeed, in which no sane parent should let their child out of their sight. And if that means our children adopting the sedentary lifestyle of so many adults, that’s a small price to pay.
In fact, despite all our parental vigilance, the number of children murdered in the UK has remained pretty much constant over the past 30 years – around 60-80. In most of those cases, a parent is the principal suspect. In 2006, 55 children were killed in England and Wales; 12 were murdered by strangers. In the US, between 40 and 150 children are abducted and murdered per year (in around 14% of cases, the killer turns out to be the child’s parent).
These are grim statistics, but they’re a drop in the ocean compared to the risks our kids are running by not going out. The number of obese of overweight children in the UK and US runs to millions. The less we exercise, the more likely it is that we’ll become overweight. And the more overweight we are, the greater the chances of us developing serious illnesses like cancer, heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and arthritis. So why, when the risks to our children of a sedentary lifestyle are so much greater than the risks of letting them out on their own, do we persist in ferrying them to school and allowing them to spend so much time in their bedrooms playing computer games?
Part of the explanation is simply that we’re not good at comparing risks. We’re more frightened of events that almost certainly won’t happen (abduction) than things that quite possibly will (obesity).
Psychologists have a familiar word for the exaggerated or unfounded fear that other people (for example, paedophiles) want to harm us: paranoia. And over the past decade, a slew of research studies have suggested that it’s much more common than anyone had previously suspected.
In fact, paranoia affects up to a quarter of us at any one time. It’s as common as depression and there are good reasons for thinking it may be on the rise, not least the tendency of the media to over-report sensational but relatively rare dangers – such as the murder of a child. The way our minds function makes us particularly susceptible to the media. The more something is repeated, and the more graphic and emotional it is, the greater the impression it makes upon us. This is why people consistently tell surveys that crime rates are rising, even though for the last decade or so they’ve been falling. It’s why they overestimate the chances of dying in a violent incident and underestimate the risk of dying from a stroke. And it’s why rates of post traumatic stress disorder in New Yorkers after 9/11 correlate directly with the amount of TV coverage of the catastrophe they watched. Our perception of risk becomes skewed.
It’s time to wise up to paranoia. We need to recognise how widespread it is, and understand both how it can be triggered and how it can be challenged. The health of our children may depend on it.