One of the neuroses that afflicts a youth-obsessed society is the fear that childhood isn't what it used to be. Every few years a new book or magazine article warns that kids are being rushed through childhood with barely a second to skin a knee. This month brings three new offerings in the lost-childhood genre: a report in the journal Pediatrics on the loss of free playtime and two books from David Elkind, a psychologist whose The Hurried Child--first published in 1981 and now available in a 25th-anniversary edition--has made him the dean of too-fast-too-soon studies.
The idea that kids should slow down and trade electronic pleasures for pastoral ones is a fine example of transference. (Aren't you really the one who wants to lose the BlackBerry and go fishing?) But there's not much evidence that the ways childhood has changed in the past 25 years--less unstructured play, more gadgets, rough college admissions--are actually hurting kids. Just the opposite.
The Hurried Child has sold some 500,000 copies, and at 75, Elkind still enjoys an active speaking schedule. The book hypothesized that nearly every social ill affecting kids--drug use, suicide, early sex, bad grades--was rooted in society's relentless message that the young should act older. But kids' lives have become even more rushed, scheduled and digitized than Elkind could have imagined in 1981, yet many psychosocial metrics of childhood have improved. The teen pregnancy rate in 2000, the most recent year for which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has figures, was the lowest since 1976. (And that's not simply because of condoms: the overall incidence of sexual intercourse among adolescents declined significantly from 1995 to 2002, according to the CDC.) Teen drug use has dropped steadily over the past decade. There's less school violence and juvenile crime. And the death rate for suicide among 15-to-19-year-olds was lower in 2003 (when 7 kids in 100,000 killed themselves) than in 1980 (when 9 in 100,000 did so). SAT scores have risen during the same period.
Elkind further indulges his atavism in his new book, The Power of Play, a lamentation on the gradual replacement of toy trucks and dollhouses with "robo pets and battery-operated cars," which "don't leave much to the imagination." (But didn't the toy truck seem outrageously modern to a Victorian who grew up playing with wood blocks and marbles?) Similarly, in its journal this month, the American Academy of Pediatrics protests the ebb of recess, arguing that "undirected play allows children to learn how to work in groups, to share, to negotiate, to resolve conflicts ..." But most schools--at least 70%--haven't cut recess. And according to the University of Maryland's Sandra Hofferth, who has studied children's time use, while noncomputer playtime has shrunk, kids now spend more hours studying, reading and participating in youth groups, art and other hobbies. Kids also take more time to shop and groom but not to watch TV: Hofferth and her colleagues have found that 9-to-12-year-olds were watching less than 15 hours a week in 2002--down from 20 hours in 1981.