Thursday, October 07, 2004

Conkers and safety

It seems that conkers are more dangerous than we thought. It is not enough for children wear safety goggles before they play with them: they have to be banned altogether.

All this concern about conkers may just be nostalgia. Do children today want to play with them? Certainly, I am convinced you see more lying ungathered on the ground than you did a few years ago.

But our mania for safety does deserve further study. First another plug for Frank Furedi's book Culture of Fear; then some ideas of my own.

Although this analysis does not apply to the conker examples, it seems that when people talk about safety they are often using it as a cover for other concerns.

Take another of today's news stories: "A head teacher has banned flared trousers from his school, claiming they are a safety hazard."

Maybe they are, but I suspect that the real reason for this decision is a sense that the latest fashions are not suitable schoolwear. The trouble is that it is hard to articulate that view in a world where progressive opinion holds that children should be accorded the same rights as adults.

Take the smacking debate. Those who want to ban it point out that it would be illegal to hit an adult, so it should be illegal to hit a child too. They produce this argument as though it is utterly clinching. The idea that we might accord a different moral status to adults and to children, they believe, is self-evidently absurd.

So it is not surprising that people prefer to talk about safety than to argue that schoolchildren should not be allowed to wear what they like.

The same process is at work in the debate on children and mobile phones. (If you are interested in the science, The official view is here and a more sceptical one, inevitably from Spiked, is here.)

However, the reason that we worry about children having mobile phones is not safety at all. It is because we feel that it is somehow not fitting that they should have them. They are too young. But to say so sounds so hopelessly old-fashioned that we treat it as a question of safety instead.

Incidentally, there is another line you can take on children and mobiles. At the Liberal Democrat Conference in Bournemouth David Butler, the chief executive of the National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations, argued that the radiation from phones is good for them:

From a perspective of pupil performance it can enhance things, because that heating effect actually improves the neuron transfers between neural pathways, and therefore your thinking ability goes up.
It sounds unlikely, but it is probably no more absurd than the idea that way to improve the behaviour of millions of schoolchildren is to prescribe them amphetamines.

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