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Just Do the Sums…


“I do not recognise the picture of teenagers that is sometimes presented in sections of the media. I consider this misrepresentation to be extremely unhelpful and damaging”
2008 Steer Report on Behaviour in Schools.

Alan Steer highlights something we all need to remember. Most of the children and young people we encounter are delightful, charming, kind, funny, intelligent and creative. Yet we are fed a diet of disaster.

There has rarely been a better time to wake-up to the manipulation of news stories about children for corporate profit and political gain. The figures of health improvement and crime reduction – particularly among children and young people – are all around us, but all we are continually fed stories of failure.

We hear that large numbers of our fellow citizens agree with the Tory-led notion that we are living in a ‘broken britain’. There has been panic about knife crime and, now, we are presented with stories of a wave of child murder.

One death is too many, of course. But the idea that we have suddenly had an upsurge of cases is untrue. There are risks that children face and pose but major violence is vanishingly rare and it is diminishing.

It is a sad fact that each and every year there are sixty grave crimes such as the murder of Baby P or Jamie Bulger. That level of death – one per million of us per year – is dreadful but it has fallen 40%  in the past 10 years.

Crime, violent crime & fear of crime, as measured by the British Crime Survey and the National Household Survey – both highly reputable instruments, have fallen by 40-50% since 1997. Even those two staples of media horror stories of youth crime – knifings and shootings – have tailed-off. (“Teenage killings in UK drop 30% in one year” (BBC 23 Dec 2009).)

Whilst young men may be most at risk from violent crimes and accidental injuries, the position of young women is starting to give cause for concern. Always the greater smokers and less likely to exercise, girls are rapidly catching up with boys in terms of their alcohol consumption. After prolonged concern about the harms faced by their male counterparts, we have to realise that, for portions of society, the female of the species is in more danger than the male.

The data on smoking has seen numbers of smokers – both adult and young – falling following the smoking ban, as have deaths from smoking related diseases.

Childhood obesity, we learn has been considerably overestimated. Estimates of 42% overweight or obese by 2020 turn out to be a miscalculation: the figure is more likely to be nearer 30%. Except it isn’t, or we don’t know. If government advice is based on figures that are out by nearly 30%, what should we believe? Was such a gross overcalculation intentional? Surely not…

One could argue that the end justifies the means. More children are now taking exercise and more eat fresh fruit and vegetables. It may be that this slightly healthier lifestyle amongst our children has accounted for the change in projected obesity. It is doubtful that any such effect would how in the data yet, but we must continue to push the healthy exercise and food messages, because the hardest to reach won’t get it…and they will be the ones who will suffer the most.

Health is not just about getting fit, it is also about mental health and wellbeing. Well brought-up children, who are encouraged to eat well and enjoy the outdoor world, are more likely to be confident, resilient and better able to handle the social and emotional trials they face as they grow-up.

Sadly, mental health for children and adolescents is not on the media sensation agenda. It doesn’t sell newspapers and isn’t handled sensitively or sensibly if it does. So, although it is by far the greatest health issue facing schoolchildren – one in ten children in this country have a clinically significant mental health condition, (ONS, Green et al, 2005) – little is heard of this from journalists or politicians.

Perhaps, in a country that prides itself on its ‘stiff upper lip’, it isn’t surprising that there is a reticence to discuss emotional vulnerability. It is certainly true that we are seeing staggering levels of alcohol consumption among children, with unit alcohol consumption having nearly tripled in certain parts of the country since 1990. Is this linked to our inability to explore our feelings?

There is a link between child mental health and health risk behaviour among young people which we need to explore and delineate because, as the recession hits and services shrink, those kids at the margins will be hitting the bottle as a way of dealing with despair.

The twenty empty vodka bottles we cleared from our car park the other day tell a tale. One that isn’t given in the newspapers or the official figures.

We need to be prepared for more of this, however. Newspapers are getting harder to sell and there is an election coming. Moral panics sell papers and harvest votes.

You do the math.

From → Health, Policy, Research

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