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Artillery Row

Childhood reclaimed

Mobile phones have been constraining our kids’ imaginations — but it does not have to be this way

At last year’s conference in London, I warned that we are failing to produce enough of something we desperately need to secure a future for our nations.

We are failing to produce enough babies.

Falling birth rates are placing increasing strain on the economies and societies of European countries, and the situation continues to worsen.

Stable populations require fertility rates of around 2.1 children per woman, yet, in the UK, the fertility rate has fallen to just 1.5 babies per woman. The EU average is even lower.

By the end of the century, just 3 per cent of countries in the world will have above-replacement birth rates.

We are not facing a one-off population contraction, but a tailspin of decline, where each generation is at least a third smaller than the one before. Europe is careering towards a future of empty playgrounds, closing schools, chronic shortages of labour and social care, and levels of taxation and inflation that will make even current fiscal policy look like a Thatcherite dream.

But one thing has improved — in the UK at least.

Just a year ago liberal commentators refused to even discuss the birth rate issue. They declared loudly that those of us with concerns were “hard right extremists”. 

Yet, the British press is now awash with establishment journalists expressing alarm about the consequences of fertility rate decline and asking why no one is talking about the issue.

From “far right” to “right on”, this liberal reverse-ferret is a joy to behold. 

Slowly and tentatively, a public debate is emerging. And the good news is that polling shows young people still want children. 92 per cent of British young women say they wish to become mothers, and most want two or more children. Put another way, if every young woman could have the children she desired, there would be no shortage of babies.

Our task, then, is to remove the considerable obstacles that prevent young people from having the families they want.

But I believe we have an even more urgent mission than reversing fertility rate decline.

And that is a mission to rescue the children that we already have.

It isn’t enough for a nation to produce sufficient numbers of children to maintain a stable population. If we want those children to become tomorrow’s citizens, parents, and yes, even taxpayers then we must also adequately protect, nurture, and guide them through childhood so that they emerge with the values and virtues necessary to shoulder their responsibilities to family, community, and nation.

We know that the circumstances and experiences of childhood will have a determining impact on a child’s health, wealth and happiness as an adult. Many household-specific conditions are proven to increase the chances of good outcomes for children.

Parents who have sufficient material resources, are married, and raise their children in a faith community are all statistically more likely to raise flourishing children (though, of course, there are countless children who do not grow up in these circumstances yet have wonderful childhoods and become successful adults).

But as conservatives, we believe that raising children is not just the preserve of the nuclear family. Our communities, our nations, our institutions, our schools, our media — in other words, our culture — all play their part in determining the outcomes of childhood.

It is not enough to be good mothers and good fathers, to provide materially and morally for our own children. If we want children to thrive, if we want to raise responsible citizens, then our culture must be oriented towards — or at least compatible with — the successful nurturing of the young.

To grow a healthy and fruitful tree requires a good seed and good soil. But planting that seed is a waste of time if the environmental conditions are wrong — if there is no rain, or no sunlight, or if the emerging sapling is eaten by livestock.

And friends, let me tell you, across Western countries there is something deeply wrong with the conditions — the culture — in which we are raising our children.

The sun isn’t shining on our children. 

Many are not flourishing. And their childhood is being eaten in front of our eyes. Our young adults are so anxious that record numbers are too sick to work. Many lack the resilience required to overcome the routine ups and downs of life. Others hold warped and pessimistic beliefs about the world — views that are completely out of step with generations before. Amongst adolescents, suicide levels have tripled since 2010. 

Depression and anxiety have become the background music to countless young lives. Many teenage boys are addicted to hardcore pornography, their nascent sexuality rewired towards violence and degradation rather than respect or intimacy. Many teenage girls are so frightened about womanhood that they resort to harming themselves, starving themselves or trying to become boys. Adolescents are lonely, confused, and hopeless about their future. 

Even our youngest children are withering, with astonishing rises in emotional, developmental, and behavioral problems. Far from producing the next generation of competent and responsible citizens, we are damning a generation to anxiety and anguish.  

Western childhood is deteriorating fast. 

If we do not rescue childhood, there is limited value in our efforts to reverse birth rate decline, or to strengthen our borders or revive our national identities.

Those on the left blame economic conditions and structural inequalities for what’s happening to our children. Those on the right blame bad parenting or family breakdown or a liberal education. But none of those things have changed dramatically enough to explain the sudden decline in our children in just the last 15 years

But there is a common factor behind these worrying trends. That factor is the invention and mass adoption of smartphones and social media. As the work of American Psychologist Jonathan Haidt puts beyond doubt, the decline in children’s wellbeing across all measures — and all countries — began in 2010 and accelerated around 2014.

From suicide rates to self-harm to loneliness to gender confusion, the pattern is the same — an inflection point around 2010 and acceleration from 2014. The first front-facing camera iPhone appeared in 2010. By 2014, most adolescents had phones and social media accounts. Haidt demonstrates not only correlation but causation, with wellbeing collapsing at the same time across all Western countries, despite very different economic and social conditions. 

All but 3 per cent of British teens now own smartphones. Many admit to spending almost their entire lives online. The average child receives 237 notifications a day — that’s an addiction-fueling, focus-busting dopamine hit every four minutes of waking time. 

Social media apps hack into children’s psychology to make and keep them addicted and reduce interest in all non-screen-based experiences. For girls, social media manipulates a natural tendency to be more affected by visual comparison, shattering their self-confidence. Camera phones and a desire to please the opposite sex draw girls into filming their own sexual abuse.

For boys, social media and gaming cause them to withdraw from the real world, 

replacing important physical risks and experiences with violent games and online pornography, which leave them superficially fulfilled but without the relational and practical skills that are so vital to adult flourishing. 

Even those children who don’t encounter harmful material or use social media suffer a cohort effect, subjected to much of the same culture as their peers and experiencing social isolation too.

Of course, this is not really “culture” at all but an anti-culture: 

Instead of self-control, smartphone culture teaches instant gratification;

It rewards comparison instead of kindness;

Revenge instead of empathy; 

Notoriety instead of excellence;

Distraction instead of focus;

A pursuit of the profane instead of the beautiful.

As Jonathan Haidt concludes, the transformation of childhood from play-based to phone-based has been catastrophic for children. This technological revolution has also weakened generational bonds, reducing healthy interaction between children and adults and replacing shared experience with a fragmented and individualised virtual world.

Over dinner at the weekend, I asked my husband and children what content they were served the last time they went on Youtube. My 10-year-old son recalled seeing football videos, my teenage daughter baking recipes. My teenage son reported seeing car crash compilation videos and my husband adverts for hair regeneration creams. 

Even advertising is no longer a shared intergenerational experience.

On a more serious note, social media has undermined the basis of shared information needed for a cohesive society. How can we be one nation when the young do not even share the same facts as the old. Is it any wonder that 51 per cent of young Americans believe Israel should be abolished and given to Hamas. Or that nearly half of young Britons think the United Kingdom was founded on racism?

But if you’re looking for a villain in this story, it is not parents. It is Big Tech.

Big Tech launched a product totally unsafe for children — given a free pass by the liberal establishment. Tech bosses have fought tooth and nail against every proposal to protect children in an online world. Meanwhile, tech industry executives have grown unimaginably rich by taking our children’s attention and selling it to the highest bidder, even when that bidder is a hostile state. 

Big Tech knowingly uses algorithms to deepen our children’s addiction, feeding them more of what catches their eye for a moment – even when that content tells them to end their own lives.The first industrial revolution stole many children’s childhood, replacing carefree play with slavery to grueling work down mines and in factories.The 21st century tech revolution is now stealing our children’s childhood, replacing carefree play with slavery to a tiny screen.

Of course there are benefits to these technologies for adults. But if we want to rescue our children we must free them from smartphones and social media. 

Across the West, there are growing calls to ban smartphones and social media for children. Florida seeks to ban social media for under 14s. The UK Government is considering social media and smartphone bans for under-16s. 

Parents are organising and campaigns have increasing popular support. But such a ban faces serious opposition.It is opposed by sceptics, who don’t yet see the damage being done. It is opposed by fatalists, who wrongly believe that nothing can be done. And, it is opposed by many liberals, who believe that any such regulation would be a threat to freedom.

But, a ban must not be opposed by conservatives.

Yes, we believe in parental authority — the sacred responsibility to raise our own children according to our own customs and beliefs. But conservatives also understand that parents on their own cannot defend their children against all threats. In a sophisticated, developed society, even the best parents can’t keep children safe without help from the law. 

If there were no consequences for careless driving, or no speed limits, what parent could teach their child to cross the road safely? If there was no age limit on buying cigarettes or alcohol, how many parents — however diligent — could protect their children from addiction? 

Yet many on the right would have us believe that ordinary parents in ordinary places should just “find a way” to protect their children from the might and predation of Big Tech, an industry that is wealthier and more powerful than the vast majority of nations on earth.

We have legal age limits on a whole range of activities and products that children are not mature enough to use safely — why should social media be any different?

Conservatives should be on the front foot in this mission, not just in rescuing children from the clutches of Big Tech. But in restating the conservative position that it takes a village to raise a child, and that for children to thrive, our culture, not just our households, must be healthy.

The left is notoriously suspicious of parents and families, preferring the state to raise our children. But sometimes the right abandons parents, by privatising the family and attempting to absolve society of our collective duty to be responsible for raising the next generation.

Every society in history has carefully controlled the influences and ideas to which its children are exposed. 

Yet through smartphones, we have lost that control and our children are now immersed for hours a day in a culture that is working in active opposition to their own flourishing, and also to the values and truths that we as parents and national conservatives want to instill.

As Jonathan Haidt writes in The Anxious Generation:

The Great Rewiring of Childhood pulled young people out of real-world communities, including their own families, and created a new kind of childhood lived in multiple, rapidly shifting networks. One inevitable result was anomie, or normlessness, because stable and binding moralities cannot form when everything is in flux.

What child, however brilliant their parents and their education, can thrive in such a culture?

It is futile to expend our energies and resources securing our geographical borders when we allow our worst enemies direct access to our children in their own bedrooms. Yes, there is a role for parents. But if there was ever a need for governments to act, it is now.

Imagine a Europe where children are playing out on the streets again. Where they laugh and talk to each other and the adults around them instead of staring mute at a tiny screen. Where they learn about the world from those who love them and are invested in their future, rather than from nihilists on the other side of the globe. 

Where our children are not frightened by climate catastrophism, graphic violence, and public shaming but nurtured into resilience through face-to-face relationships and real-life experiences. And where our children’s identity is determined not by how many virtual likes and followers they have, but on a pride in the real families, communities, and nations to which they belong. 

Preserving the nation state requires us to preserve — and control — the culture our children inhabit, so that our unique values, traditions and identity can be passed from one generation to the next.

We must take a stand against liberalism and against fatalism. 

If we want to secure our future, first we must save the children.

This piece has been adapted from a speech delivered at NatCon Brussels 2

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