Thursday, August 18, 2016

Instead of a childhood obesity strategy

In 2006 I published an essay - The problem with children today: The Liberal Democrats and children
 - in a collection edited by Graham Watson.

The section on childhood obesity seems relevant today.

The problem and the conventional solutions

One topical area of concern about children is obesity, and it provides a convenient way into the debate about the travails of childhood in Britain today.

In April 2006, the Guardian reported  the publication of the National Health Survey for 2004 under the headline “Child obesity has doubled in a decade.” Researchers had weighed some 2,000 youngsters and found that 26.7 per cent of girls and 24.2 per cent of boys aged between 11 and 15 qualified as obese – nearly double the rate in 1995. Amongst younger children the picture was not much better.

These statistics were accompanied by some lurid quotations, with Colin Waine, chairman of the National Obesity Forum, talking of a “public health time bomb” in the making because children who were obese in their early teens were twice as likely to die by the age of 50. Amanda Eden from Diabetes UK said: “We will soon be seeing our children growing up losing limbs and becoming blind, as they develop the serious complications of having the condition.” Some have argued that this rhetoric was overblown and the definition of obesity too vague , but there is little doubt that our children are getting fatter.

The difficulties begin when you ask what we should do about it. The conventional wisdom holds that children are getting fatter because they eat too much, and the way to get them to lose weight is through more sport in schools. Yet both these beliefs are mistaken.

The most authoritative discussion of changing calorific intakes concludes that:
… even after adjustments for meals eaten outside the home, and for consumption of alcohol, soft drinks, and confectionery, average per capita energy intake seems to have declined by 20 per cent since 1970.
And will more sport in schools help? The Liberal Democrats certainly think so. Here is Don Foster launching a policy paper in August 2004:
We see sport as crucial to the nation’s health and well-being. With child obesity trebling in the past decade, it is time the Department of Health took a far greater role in promoting sport and active living.
Yet what research there has been suggests that children burn more energy in free play than they do in organised sport . So if we really want to do something about childhood obesity, we are going to have to encourage free play. This might sound uncontroversial, but there are many forces hostile to the idea.

Among them must be listed government ministers, to judge by Tessa Jowell’s speech to the government’s sport summit on 14 July 2003:
Here’s the truth – children don’t want to play sport on badly-drained 1950s scraps of land. They want showers, fences and floodlights. They want quality facilities.
Just how circumscribed children’s lives have become can be seen from another recent Guardian article. It tells us:
Research suggests that in 20 years the ‘home habitat’ of a typical eight-year-old – the area that a child can travel around on their own – has shrunk by nearly 90 per cent.
Things are worse than that, for the figures referred to cover changes that took place between 1971 and 1990. It is hard to believe things have got better since then: the same article mentions a Home Office survey from 2005 showing that a third of children aged between 8 and 10 never play out without an adult being present, and reported that the number of children walking to school declined from 61 per cent to 53 per cent between 1994 and 2004.

The great thief of children’s freedom has been the motor car and Liberal Democrats should support the setting up of home zones – residential areas where efforts are made to reduce the dominance of the car by measures like traffic calming, planting and very low speed limits. These sound non-controversial, but in practice traffic calming is often vociferously opposed and it can take a steady nerve for local candidates to stick to their guns in the face of it, even if my own experience is that most of the people who mention the issue on the doorstep want similar measures in their own street.

Then there is the depopulation of public space over the past 30 years. Semi-official figures like park-keepers and bus conductors have disappeared, largely out of a desire to save public money, and been replaced by technological alternatives. The result is a landscape less friendly to children – you try asking a CCTV camera for help if you have lost the bus fare home.

In our essay Cohesive Communities, David Boyle and I called for the use of community support officers and neighbourhood wardens to “reduce antisocial behaviour, co-ordinate the removal of graffiti and litter, and provide more visible uniformed community safety staff on buses and trains”. This would certainly be a step forward, but on reflection I wonder whether it would not be better to recreate the roles of these lost public servants rather than employ more of the new ones.

The brief of community support officers is so narrowly focused on public order that they are always likely to come into conflict with venturesome children; besides, that order is best seen as a by-product of people going about their ordinary business rather than the result of enforcement action by the authorities. Perhaps the next Lib Dem London Mayoral candidate should campaign for a new generation of Routemaster buses and promise to employ conductors on them.

The other great factor that limits children’s freedom is our current preoccupation with the dangers they face out of the home – particularly the danger of sexual assault. Child abuse is not a new phenomenon and there is no evidence that children face greater dangers than they did years ago, yet we seem obsessed with the risk.

Earlier generations of parents were content to let their children negotiate the outside world armed only with warnings about not accepting lifts or sweets from strangers, whereas today the danger seems so extreme to many that they prefer not to let their children out at all.

It is tempting to call for more child-only spaces and more vetting but the danger is that, in taking steps to meet the supposed dangers to children, the authorities will merely confirm to parents that those dangers are real and convince them of the rightness of their decision to limit their children’s freedom.

One can see such a process at work in an attempted solution like the ‘walking bus’. Under such schemes, children are walked to school in a group under the supervision of volunteer adult escorts. They can join the crocodile only at certain points, and at the end of the school day the bus drops them off at the same stops, where they are collected by their parents. The trouble with such schemes is that they give parents the message that the outside world is so dangerous that it is hard to blame them for deciding to drive their children to school instead.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Bigger families would provide the activity , supervision etc. And less money on electronic devices.
I well remember the dominance and power of 'big sisters' back in the fourties. They could watch over many children just by being near by..