National Hypnotherapy Society | Experts call for official guidelines…

A group of leading authors, educationalists and child-development experts is calling on the government to introduce national guidelines on the use of screens, amid concern about the impact on children’s physical and mental health.

It is one of a series of measures outlined in a letter to the Guardian, highlighting what it describes as the increasingly “toxic” nature of childhood, and signed by 40 senior figures, including the author Philip Pullman, the former archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, the psychotherapist Susie Orbach and the childcare expert Penelope Leach.

The letter urges the government to create a cabinet-level minister for children, with specific responsibility for auditing all government policies in order to assess their impact on children’s health and wellbeing.

It calls for the development of kindergarten-style education for three- to seven-year-olds, with emphasis on social and emotional development and outdoor play; and says guidelines on screen-based technology for children up to 12 should be drawn up by recognised authorities on child health and development.

It is 10 years since the group sent its first letter to the media, expressing concern about the way it believes children’s health and wellbeing are being undermined by “the decline of outdoor play, increasingly screen-based lifestyles, a hyper-competitive schooling system and the unremitting commercialisation of childhood”. Since then, they say, policy making has been “half-hearted, short-termist and disjointedly ineffective”, with obesity and mental health problems among young people approaching crisis levels.

“If children are to develop the self-regulation and emotional resilience required to thrive in modern technological culture, they need unhurried engagement with caring adults and plenty of self-directed outdoor play, especially during their early years (0–7),” the letter reads. “Without concerted action, our children’s physical and mental health will continue to deteriorate, with long-term results for UK society that are frankly unthinkable.”

Among the signatories is Sue Palmer, the author of the 2006 book Toxic Childhood, which tapped into parental angst about raising children in the modern world; the psychologist and educational consultant Dr Richard House; the professor of education Dr Robin Alexander; the wellbeing programme director at the London School of Economics’ centre for economic performance, Richard Layard; the former London schools commissioner Sir Tim Brighouse, the psychologist and author Steve Biddulph and a former government mental health champion Natasha Devon.

Not everyone subscribes to the doom-laden view of modern childhood and the “toxic” environment in which children are growing up. Recent studies have suggested that screen-based technology can encourage reading in boys from low-income families and that there may be a positive link between computer games and academic performance.

However, Palmer, who chairs the Upstart Scotland campaign to introduce kindergarten-style education for under-sevens, said: “Apart from basic material needs, like food and shelter, there are two essential ingredients if children are to survive and thrive whatever the future brings: love and play. “But consumer culture has encouraged adults to confuse both of these with stuff you can buy in the shops. We’ve also become obsessed with trying to teach kids everything they need to know. But you can’t teach things like self-regulation and resilience – they have to develop, through personal experience.”

House said: “It’s nothing short of a scandal that policymakers have done next to nothing to address the ‘toxic childhood’ issues that Sue Palmer first flagged up in her iconic book over a decade ago. Indeed, matters are now far worse, with children’s mental health and behavioural problems at record levels. “The time for pussyfooting around politicians and policymakers is over, and it’s time to shame them into doing something substantive and meaningful – or future historians will doubtless look back on the current era as one of political child abuse.”

Dr Sharie Coombes, a child and family psychotherapist, was a primary school head teacher when Palmer’s book came out, implementing early years policies which she said felt “misinformed, abusive and dangerous to children’s wellbeing, confidence and long-term learning attitudes”. “A decade on, I’m now a child and family psychotherapist helping to pick up the pieces of emotionally broken children forced to endure damaging, politically charged and excessively stressful learning environments and policies. “We cannot stand by and tolerate such abuses when we have other international models to draw on that demonstrate how to achieve excellent results and mentally healthy young people who value their education.”