Friday, November 16, 2007

Irish kids today - good news, bad news

This is the text of my article in The Evening Herald on 14th November, 2007:

The good news from the latest research by Barnardos is that relationships between parents and children today are in good shape.

The bad news, in the just-published survey by the childcare organisation, is that we now have worries which did not exist – or not to the same extent – when today’s parents were children.

Eighty per cent of parents say their children have a better childhood than they had themselves and just over half believe their relationship with their children is better than the relationship they had with their own parents.

And in a technological age, relationships continue to be top priorities for parents and children. When children were asked what made for a happy childhood, they put ‘a loving family’ at the top of the list. So did their parents. For children, friends came second and a safe community third.

Parents have fears about the safety of children and about the dangers of alcohol and drugs. Bullying is a major concern for parents and children.

In a good example of technology as a double-edged sword, parents find mobile phones beneficial for keeping in touch with their kids but they worry about those unsupervised phone conversations teenagers have with other teenagers.

Nevertheless, and as every parent knows, technology is a big priority with children. Over half the children interviewed for the survey – and by extension probably over half the nation’s children – are using social networking websites such as Bebo. That’s an awful lot of children. In effect, these networking websites have become a vast, national – sometimes international – conversation, mainly involving children and teenagers.

Nothing wrong with that, in itself. But parents cannot be blamed for worrying whether the conversation is always safe and unexploitative. And who can guarantee that?

That said, this parent’s view is that sites such as Bebo offer teenagers unprecedented ways of maintaining and expanding friendships and that the pluses probably outweigh the minuses.

The issue of the time that parents get to spend with children produced interesting results. Essentially, people seem to think that other people are doing less well than they are themselves. For example, three quarters of parents surveyed believed they themselves were spending enough time with their children but that the rest of Irish parents were not. Some of this failure they put down to the demands of work. However, 80 per cent of children and young people believe parents and children are spending enough time with each other.

But is interaction between parents and children under threat from the phenomenon of televisions and DVD players in the bedroom? The survey found that three out of ten 5-9 year olds have a television in their bedrooms. One out of seven 1-4 year olds has a TV in the bedroom.

As Barnardo’s chief executive Fergus Finlay put it at the launch of the report yesterday, “There must be some ground for concern, though, in the finding that an extraordinary number of young children have televisions, and often DVD players, in their own rooms. A child who spends too much time alone is less likely to be a happy child, and less likely to be able to sustain relationships. The fact that a quarter of our children up to the age of nine are supplied with their own televisions is something we ought to be thinking about.”

Nevertheless, the overall picture appears to be a positive one. But, as Finlay reminds us we cannot either ignore the fact that one child in nine lives in poverty and that one in three finishes primary school unable to read or write. Children with a disability, as Finlay put it, are ignored and discriminated against. And as the economy and government spending tighten it is vital that these children in particular should not be forgotten.

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