Analysis & Comment

Lorraine Courtney: 'A world on fire and 'Hunger Games' in the classroom – who'd be a child today?'

Has there ever been a more challenging time to be a child? You mightn’t think it to look at them, buried in their smartphones, but kids today have it tough. We’ve created a terrifying world for the children going back to school this week.

Our planet is on fire and 2019’s schoolchildren won’t be guaranteed clean air or clean water when they grow up.

They won’t have a properly functioning healthcare system to support them in bad times, even if they pay through the nose in super-high taxes.

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There’s rising intolerance and mistrust of other people. Attacks across the world by men with guns add to the general hum of mistrust and anxiety. When it comes to dystopian futures, we seem to be hurtling towards all of them.

We bubble over with concern about our children – look at the tsunami of parenting manuals, parenting classes and newspaper articles about how to be the best possible parent.

Outwardly, we seem to be a society obsessed with raising children well but we tolerate the fact that our children have no access to good childcare.

And our maternity leave arrangements force mothers back to work six months after giving birth, stopping them from spending important time at home bonding with and breastfeeding their baby.

Kids today live with the baggage of their parents’ economic anxiety. Little progress had been made in delivering on a Government commitment to lift 100,000 children out of poverty by 2020.

Homeless children are going to school hungry, tired and sick, and they feel sad, lonely and ashamed, according to a study by the Children’s Rights Alliance, damaging their ability to learn and engage in the classroom.

Unless a serious attempt is made to tackle the structural causes of homelessness and long-term unemployment, these children will continue to be stuck in the miserable situation of relying on handouts from the State.

In the nineties, all you had to do to unlock the gateway to this wonderful world was open the front door. But today’s teched-up kids don’t have time for the outdoors – or aren’t allowed out. It’s rare to see a child using his own street to play.

Almost a third of Irish children are now overweight. There has been a 10-fold increase in obesity among Irish boys between 1975 and 2016, and a nine-fold increase among Irish girls.

Some generational changes are positive, some are negative, and many are both. Parenting styles continue to change, as do school curriculums and culture, and these things matter.

But the twin rise of the smartphone and social media has brought about the kind of change we’ve not seen in a very long time, if ever.

Technology means that kids never get any space away from the relentless social media frenzy.

There’s compelling evidence that the devices we’ve placed in our children’s hands are having profound effects on their lives – and are making them seriously unhappy.

Imagine having a film crew document your childhood and post it all online. Today’s parents are doing this as early as the first pregnancy scan.

The internet has provided a permanent and public place for children to be exposed and mercilessly judged.

Social media sites mean many children never have time off from playground bullying. Parents say that their daughters are worried about their body image from as young as seven.

In the classroom, they live through ‘The Hunger Games’ every day. Today’s children are in a competition with thousands of others to be the best.

An Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) report last year found that the pressure of the Leaving Cert is causing stress, burnout and mental health problems. And this kind of pressure deprives children of the chance to figure out what they really care about, how to think about complex topics with open minds, and how to find a sense of purpose in life.

Crystallised in a golden time when people still connected with each other in real life before the internet chained us to our phones, my generation were the last products of an innocent, earthy and analogue upbringing.

Maybe I’m nostalgic for the nineties, but we missed out on nothing and got the best of everything. Statistics point to a dramatic rise in the level of childhood mental health issues over the course of a generation.

Research by the Royal College of Surgeons found that by the age of 13, one in three young people in Ireland is likely to have experienced some type of mental health difficulty. By the age of 24, that rate had increased to more than one in two. The suicide rate for young people aged 15-19 is the fourth highest in the EU.

In the nineties, we only had to deal with age-old childhood fears. Adding in an endemic fear among adults of paedophiles, terrorists, crime and global warming trickling down to children, I’m only surprised these stats aren’t higher.

What should we do now? We could start by not hiding from the ugly truth and being accountable to them for the world we have made. So that when it comes time for them to take over, they don’t waste any time, and can get straight to work building something better.

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