Decline in children’s accidents a sign of broader social changes

Childhood in Britain is changing fast, an NHS report finds

One in four  British children now has a tablet and one in five learned to use a touch screen before their second birthday. Photograph: Getty Images

One in four British children now has a tablet and one in five learned to use a touch screen before their second birthday. Photograph: Getty Images

Fri, Jul 18, 2014, 01:00

Summer is a time when the cries of children are heard in gardens and parks, followed all too frequently by trips to the doctor or hospitals following the inevitable accidents that have marked childhood through the generations.

Today, however, patterns are changing, as can be judged from a revealing insight offered by the weekly statistics gathered by the National Health Service from the nearly 200 hospitals that are spread throughout England.

Nearly 50,000 children are taken to accident-and-emergency wards each year, but the number of them who end up there because they fell off a tree – once upon a time a stalwart amongst children’s injuries – has halved in a decade.

Fewer children are falling partly because parents are more cautious about what they let their children get up to. Equally, however, children are simply climbing fewer trees than their predecessors did in the past, doctors say.

Instead, the 2014 generation is more likely to be indoors, playing on Xboxes or other computer games; the number of children presenting in A&E wards with repetitive strain injuries doubled between 2002 and 2012.

A fifth of them have never climbed a tree. Nearly a third have not been on a country walk in the past 12 months, a figure that has stayed constant despite efforts to encourage more of this activity, while two-thirds admit that they have not played outside more than once in the last week.

More than a 12th of British parents believe their children are “addicted” to gadgets, even though they unwilling or unable to stop themselves bowing to the demands of their offspring to buy even more technology.

Nearly nine out of every 10 couples bought gadgets last year specifically for their children, according to a retail survey: a £5.6 billion spend, or £462 per household. Most of the spending took place last Christmas.

Early adopters

One in four children now has a tablet. One in five learned to use a touch screen before their second birthday, while a 10th of all children – deserving of the tag early adopters, surely – managed to do so before they were one.

Most parents, even if they fail in the execution, accept that their children should not be ever-present in front of a screen, but, equally, they have to balance that with the need to rear children who can fit in with the world around them.

The lack of activity is creating its own problems. Research last year found that almost half of all seven-year-olds in Britain are now leading such housebound lives that they do not take more than one hour’s exercise each day – the absolute minimum necessary, say doctors.

Girls are particularly lazy, the research found: just 38 per cent of them managed an hour, compared with 63 per cent of boys.

Ethnic minorities did poorly, too, with Indian children being the least active of seven groups. In Northern Ireland, just 40 per cent hit the hardly onerous 60-minute target.

Obesity risk

Doctors are worried. Such inactivity creates immediate problems of obesity: nearly one-third of all children aged between 2 and 15 are overweight, or obese, while 11-year-olds from Britain’s poorest families are twice as likely to be overweight as those from the richest families.

Technology, however, only partly explains current problems. Most children between the ages of four and 18 get one-seventh of all their energy needs from sugary foods and drinks – a catastrophic finding, doctors warn.

“Sugar consumption is driving a similar epidemic of tooth decay in children. In 2012 almost one-third of five-year-olds in England had tooth decay,” says Public Health England.

Ninety-five in every 100 children diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes are overweight, while such children face a 50 per cent higher risk of asthma.

Nearly two-thirds of obese children suffer from sleep apnoea, while seven in every 10 such children suffer from high cholesterol, high blood pressure, or hypertension, all of which will worsen in later life.

National campaign

Faced with such findings, Public Health England recommends that “parents swap sugary drinks to water, lower-fat milk, sugar free or no added sugar drinks. Even unsweetened fruit juice is sugary, so try not to let your kids drink more than 150ml a day”.

A national campaign is to be launched, but such campaigns have been launched before with little success. Instead, action by ministers is needed, but many of them are frightened by the power of the food industry, or media-led scares about “the nanny state”.

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