the consequences of 'modern' life

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by: danah boyd

Yesterday's UK Telegraph printed an open letter from numerous academics, professionals, and artists concerned about the health of youth. The piece, signed by hundreds, is called: Modern life leads to more depression among children:

Sir – As professionals and academics from a range of backgrounds, we are deeply concerned at the escalating incidence of childhood depression and children's behavioural and developmental conditions. We believe this is largely due to a lack of understanding, on the part of both politicians and the general public, of the realities and subtleties of child development.

Since children's brains are still developing, they cannot adjust – as full-grown adults can – to the effects of ever more rapid technological and cultural change. They still need what developing human beings have always needed, including real food (as opposed to processed "junk"), real play (as opposed to sedentary, screen-based entertainment), first-hand experience of the world they live in and regular interaction with the real-life significant adults in their lives.

They also need time. In a fast-moving hyper-competitive culture, today's children are expected to cope with an ever-earlier start to formal schoolwork and an overly academic test-driven primary curriculum. They are pushed by market forces to act and dress like mini-adults and exposed via the electronic media to material which would have been considered unsuitable for children even in the very recent past.

Our society rightly takes great pains to protect children from physical harm, but seems to have lost sight of their emotional and social needs. However, it's now clear that the mental health of an unacceptable number of children is being unnecessarily compromised, and that this is almost certainly a key factor in the rise of substance abuse, violence and self-harm amongst our young people.

This is a complex socio-cultural problem to which there is no simple solution, but a sensible first step would be to encourage parents and policy-makers to start talking about ways of improving children's well-being. We therefore propose as a matter of urgency that public debate be initiated on child-rearing in the 21st century this issue should be central to public policy-making in coming decades.

Given the British slant of this, i'm kinda surprised to not see David Buckingham on the list of signers. His book After the Death of Childhood: Growing up in the Age of Electronic Media deals directly with this issue, showing both positives and negatives of contemporary society.

I strongly support this letter. I believe that discourse about the state of children's health is desperately needed. The issue is complex – it is not a matter of just taking away junk food or banning TV; it is about rethinking the child-raising process at all levels. It is also not something that just pertains to psychology, but also to sociology, anthropology, economics, media studies, politics, education, etc. There are scholars researching many components of this but the issue itself extends far beyond the academy. I'm concerned that the media has defined the concerns and that there is too little discussion between scholars and the public at large. I would *love* to see this change.

One concern i had in reading this letter is that i fear people will interpret it to mean that technology is bad bad bad. (For that reason, i bolded two parts that i think highlight key sites of trouble in our society.) By and large, technology is filling a gap and that gap is created by us – parents, educators, politicians, media, … society in general. TV is allowing children to have desperately-needed downtime, the Internet provides them with the a place to hang out amongst their friends when they are locked into their nuclear family residences. If we take their plea seriously (and i hope we do), i think that it's important to put down our adult biases, our technophobia, our xenophobia, and our parental fears to think about youth's worlds from their point of view.

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