Modern-day pessimism is making our children ill

Epidemics of anxiety and ill-health are sweeping through young people. And it is adults who are spreading them, writes Dr Michael Fitzpatrick (pictured)

Seeing children with diarrhoea, vomiting and bellyaches during the recent outbreak of gastroenteritis caused by the norovirus reminded me of how unfamiliar it has become for GPs to have to deal with sick children on a substantial scale.

Although we see lots of babies with coughs and colds, some with ear and throat infections, and the occasional case of bronchiolitis or pneumonia, the dramatic decline of the old infectious diseases such as scarlet fever and whooping cough, measles and mumps, means that most children proceed through infancy little troubled by serious illness. Infant mortality in the developed world is now so low that it is scarcely recordable.

Yet, although our children have never been healthier or their life prospects better, it seems that every news bulletin and newspaper offers further information about the devastating impact of some new childhood epidemic.

Premature death

While some children are said to be destined for premature death as a result of obesity (leading to diabetes, heart disease and cancer), many more are being diagnosed with mental health problems (anxiety, depression, self-harming), developmental disorders (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, learning difficulties, autistic spectrum disorders) or disabling allergies (asthma, eczema, hay fever). Campaigning organisations and therapeutic entrepreneurs compete in bidding up estimates of the prevalence of childhood epidemics.

In her book Toxic Childhood, former teacher Sue Palmer blames a “toxic cocktail” of junk food, screen-based play, defective parenting and wider cultural factors for damaging children’s welfare and development. Her proposals – a series of measures to “detoxify” childhood – have been endorsed in a public statement signed by many professionals and academics from the worlds of science, education and social policy.

One sentence in this statement is revealing. These experts are worried that children, whose brains are still developing, “cannot adjust to rapid technological and cultural change”. But as someone who relies on his teenage son to programme his iPod, it seems to me that young people are often better at adjusting to change than their parents. Indeed, whereas older people often fear technological innovation and new cultural challenges, younger people generally welcome them.

Pervasive pessimism

A pessimistic response to modernity has long been associated with the tendency to attribute new patterns of disease to sweeping social and cultural change. In the 18th and 19th centuries, tuberculosis and gout were regarded as “diseases of civilisation” in the 20th century, allergies came to occupy a similar symbolic role as disorders of a sick society. Nor is there anything new about adults projecting their anxieties on to their children.

What is new today is that the pervasive pessimism characteristic of contemporary society is making children ill on an unprecedented scale. Adults’ fears about the future – reflected in the popularity of apocalyptic scenarios of planetary Armageddon – are also expressed in fears for the welfare of the next generation. But, instead of trying to “detoxify” childhood by imposing austere regimes of diet and exercise on children together with therapy in the classroom and parenting classes at home, perhaps adults should seek some meaning in their own lives.

From the perspective of the surgery, it generally seems that the children are fine. It is the parents that need attention – but not from a doctor.

Dr Michael Fitzpatrick is a GP in the London Borough of Hackney

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