Childhood Obesity Blogs

Childhood Obesity Blogs

Endangered Species: The Disappearance Of Youth From The Wilderness

Over the past 20 years our children have become increasingly alienated from the natural world. They have abandoned our open spaces and wilderness where unstructured imaginative play has existed for as long as the human species. Youthful expeditions that discovered shortcuts to school and secret hiding places are being eradicated by societal fears and impending litigation. Days spent building forts in the woods and swimming in ponds are quickly fading from our social history. At best, the constricting radius children are allowed to travel around their homes limits them to the trusted patches of grass and concrete in the front yard.

The effects of this nature deficit on the physical, emotional, and spiritual health of our youth are popular topics in the social laboratory. Sacramento State University offers a course solely examining the effects of television on our youth. It is considered a likely contributor to childhood obesity, aggressive behaviors, and Attention Deficit Disorder.

It is a curious abandonment from a parenting philosophy that once produced some of the best lessons of childhood. Kevin Smith remembers growing up in Camarillo, a small coastal farm town in California. “As kids my brother and I, along with several neighborhood friends, would spend hours playing in a large wheat field at the end of our street. We would dig holes and build ‘forts’ with whatever we had laying around the house. Sometimes our parents would let us camp out overnight. This would all disappear twice a year when the land owner plowed the field so he could replant wheat for his cattle.”

Natasha Morisawa, a Bioterrorism and Emergency Preparedness Analyst, remembers walking her dogs for hours with her sister. They toured local parks, learning the neighborhood along the way. “Not just our street or block, but details about the blocks between our house and the park; details that we would never know if we rode in the car.”

What is blamed for the disconnect? The ever-rising popularity of video games, television, and computers are obvious targets. For the first time in history, early life experiences are formed more by LCD pixels and cartoon characters than insect collections and treehouses. A study conducted by Kaiser Family Foundation found that US youth now spend an average of five hours a day–40 percent of their awake hours–in front of electronic devices. And the behavior starts young. Children under the age of two years old will spend over two hours daily in front of a media screen.

In 1997, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) focused their studies on the potential health risks that television, movies, music videos and video games present to our youth. Since then, it has been linked to a number of conditions. It is generally accepted as a contributor to childhood obesity and hypertension by encouraging inactivity. Compounding the problem, the most commonly advertised foods during children’s programming are high in fat, sugar and salt. Academically, there is a relationship between excessive television viewing and a decline in reading and comprehension skills. Emotionally, media overexposure can contribute to aggressive behaviors and desensitization to violence. As children grow into young adults, conditions with body image, sexuality, and self-concept may also develop from the portrayal of unrealistic scenarios.

But researchers aren’t ready to say that digital and media entertainment are completely to blame. They may only be symptoms of greater challenges; something to fill a child’s time due to lost options.

In today’s communities, money has become a powerful source of retribution. Mental anguish, embarrassment and disrespect all have a price. We sue over ruined pants and a neighbor’s blowing leaves. Playtime is not exempt from this system. The fear of litigation from a child falling from a tree or tripping at a creek crossing is too great. Nervous homeowners dissolved any play in their yards, fearful that a slip on wet grass could lead to losing their home, their retirement, or their own child’s college fund.

As youth are increasingly locked out of undeveloped lands, Park and Recreation departments scramble to create equitable outdoor experiences. A replica of the lost opportunities. They erect plastic molded climbing walls, cushioned groundcover, skate parks and water slides.

In 1980 Turner Broadcasting launched CNN introducing America to a new news format. A 24-hours-a-day endlessly looping news format. Not far behind, cable television multiplied our channel count from five to hundreds. How to fill all those channels, all those hours? Repetition. Hour after hour, network upon network. Repeat daily.

In 1989, the World Wide Web was born. The internet provided a platform for accelerating information around the globe. Once connected, the public no longer had to wait for delivery of news through television and print media-they could hunt for it. An avenue to know practically anything we wanted at any time, ad nauseum. Our hunter gatherer nature was aroused.

Parents embraced the new format, collecting information that would keep themselves and their children safer; a parent’s ultimate responsibility. But what do they ultimately find?
A twenty second internet search presents these results:
• A non-family member abduction occurs every nine minutes in the united states.
• There are 4 million pet dog attacks in the US, mostly on children.
• As many as one in twenty adults has active pedophile thoughts or tendencies. (Global Children’s Fund)
• About 1000 children die from drowning.
• Every year approximately 250,000 children are brought to the emergency room due to a bicycle injury.

Then the newspaper arrives and headlines reinforce the threats. “Oxnard Man Shot to Death”, “Bird Tests Positive for West Nile Virus”, “Mountain Lion Sighted on California Rooftop”. Television carries us further from home.
“A Chino Hills Park is closed after a coyote attack on a two year old…”
“Police are searching for a 14 year old girl that went missing from her Bel Air home early Tuesday…” With information like this appearing by the strike of a keyboard or the push of a remote control, it is understandable why parents are fearful. There are a world of threats leaned up against our front door.

Enter the Free Range Kid.

Last month Lenore Skenazy of New York City was labeled the “Worst Mother in the World” by public critics across the country. What does a mother need to do to garner such virulent disapproval across America? She dropped her nine year old son off at a department store in New York, and challenged him to return home safely.

At his pleading, Skenezy left her son inside a New York city Bloomingdale’s. He wanted the challenge of finding his way back, alone, one subway ride and a bus connection from their home. Mom gave him a subway map, a Metro card, a twenty dollar bill and some change for a phone call. She told him what to do if he got lost. Then she returned to their home and waited. He found his way back without incident, mother and child both thrilled by his accomplishment.

When Skenazy mentioned the event to friends and acquaintances she was met with unrestrained condemnation. She was reminded of a recent abduction of a young girl in Florida.
“How would you have felt if he didn’t come home?”
“I don’t want to be the one on TV explaining my daughter’s disappearance.” And that was before Skenazy put it in writing. As an opinion columnist with a typically humorous slant, she hardly expected the massive reaction that was coming when she documented it in her weekly New York Sun column.

As the controversy grew, Skenazy started a blog and message board where opponents and supporters gathered to debate. Some visitors embrace her parenting decision completely, some agree philosophically but are unable to engage in the practice, and others outright condemn the experience as criminal.

The debate spawned a new parenting approach; or rather, a return to an old one. The Free Range Kid Movement was born. Despite accusations to the contrary, Free Range Parents don’t discourage bicycle helmets, car seats, or airbags. They don’t encourage running with scissors. They want a return to the lifestyle that existed before the information age-including the risks that come with it. They believe it is essential to training children’s independence and decision-making abilities. Free range parents allow their pre-teen children to walk to school alone. To ride their bicycles to the library. To play in the woods unsupervised.

Free Range Parents also come armed with their own counter-statistics. That a child is 40 times more likely to die in a car accident than be abducted. That, contrary to statistics broadcast on the Today Show, the US Justice department shows a decline in child abductions since 1988. And since 1980, death rates dropped by about half for children between the ages of five and fourteen.

Ventura County is home to two of the safest communities in America, Thousand Oaks and Simi Valley, though you wouldn’t always know it. Even for parents that agree with the philosophy of the movement, they don’t find it quite so simple to practice. “I think there is a generalized feeling that the open spaces are wonderful in a supervised situation, but that unsupervised there is too much potential for a predator to be lying in wait, whether it be one of the human or animal.” Says Heather Quaal.

Natasha Morisawa agrees, “I think I would like to be more of a ‘free range parent.’…But for now, I will acknowledge my vulnerability and do what I can so that I can raise these boys in the best world I know.”

One side will argue that the reason the numbers are down is because their children are better protected from the threats. The other side will argue that the threats never existed in the first place. With many parents, the risk is too great or too frivolous. Some make little distinction between free range parenting and the criminally negligent.

What is generally agreed by both sides is the effect this nature deficit is having on our youth. The responsibility to nurture healthy, confident and curious children hasn’t changed. Childhood obesity, caused by the body taking in more calories than it burns, has tripled since 1960. In addition, Type 2 diabetes, mellitus, hypertension, and obstructive sleep apnea are all conditions that can carry directly into adulthood. Nature experiences have been increasingly abandoned as one of the most effective cures to these conditions.

In his book Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv acknowledges the challenge. “Parents already feel besieged by the difficulty of balancing work and family life. Understandably, they may resist the idea of adding any to-dos to their long list of chores. So here is another way of viewing the challenge: Nature as an antidote. Stress reduction, greater physical health, a deeper sense of spirit, more creativity, a sense of play, even a safer life-these are the rewards that await a family when it invites more nature into children’s lives.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics agrees. It believes increasing physical activity and shifting to a healthy diet can reverse many of the recent childhood illness trends. Psychologically, it finds that outdoor physical activity increases self-esteem and self-concept, just as it decreases anxiety and depression.

The debate between cause and symptom will continue, but is ultimately irrelevant to the child sitting passively in their living room today. As children fall further out of sync with nature, they miss the lessons nature has provided for youth during all of human existence. By keeping our youth indoors, we risk confining them to a very small, often paranoid world. Parents may need to reinforce in themselves that muddy hands and an occasional skinned knee are part of growing up. Through this, their children will learn about a world of mysticism and surprise, amusement and challenge that exists beyond their electronic world. A world that is waiting for them past the screen door.


About the Author

GT Jones is a writer located in Ventura County California and publisher of Grind Show Books, Dangerous Stories for Daredevil Readers.

Childhood Obesity ~ Kids Snacking Too Much