In my 20th book, a novel entitled Childless, I tell the story about a childless child psychologist who tries to foil a U.S government plot to declare childhood as a medical disorder and then eliminate it from the human genome. The novel is a darkly comedic satire about something very serious that is going on in American culture: the physical, sexual, emotional, and verbal abuse of children, and the encroachment of adult values, attitudes, and behaviors onto the institution of childhood. The very things that make children so heartwarming and special–their curiosity, creativity, playfulness, imagination, wonder, inventiveness, and humor (traits that have been refined over a million years of evolution and natural selection)–are under assault from all sides (see my page on The Natural Genius of Children). Here are 14 indicators of how this is happening in America today:
- Child abuse and neglect are a common occurrence in American life. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that one out of seven children have experienced child abuse or neglect in the past year in the United States. This is likely an underestimate because many cases are unreported.
- Young children are being exposed to adult content (including sexual situations, foul language, and violence) through streaming videos, video games, television, social media, and other forms of mass media. In one survey, 50% of participants reported being exposed to sexual media by eighth grade, and research suggested that sexually explicit media exposure predicted early sexual debut, unsafe sex, and multiple sexual partners.
- Children (and especially girls) are increasingly being sexualized through magazine advertisements, beauty pageants, toys and dolls, clothing, and other cultural manifestations. A study in the academic journal Body Image, suggested that sexualized messages appear to be internalized by very young girls which, in turn, has negative implications for how they feel about their bodies.
- Kindergarten and preschool students are engaged in first and second grade tasks with more academics and less time to play. One study, for example found that in 1998, 31 percent of teachers believed their students should learn to read during the kindergarten year. That figure jumped to 80 percent by 2010. In 2010, 73 percent of kindergartners took some kind of standardized test. One-third took tests at least once a month. In 1998, they didn’t even ask kindergarten teachers that question [italics mine]. But even the first-grade teachers in 1998 reported giving far fewer tests than the kindergarten teachers did in 2010.
- The U.S. government fails to support child care and child assistance programs that benefit families and help children reach appropriate developmental goals. A 2021 report from the U.S. Treasury, reported that parents are asked to pay for child care when they can least afford it and with little ability to borrow against their future savings to cover the costs of care for young children. Federal funding to help support families (especially those in poverty) is unlikely to happen soon. Lawmakers in Washington cut early childhood funding from a major federal spending proposal that passed the Senate in August, 2022.
- Children are working illegally as laborers in adult jobs. According to a 2010 petition by Human Rights Watch ”hundreds of thousands of children are employed as farm workers in the United States, often working 10 or more hours a day. They are often exposed to dangerous pesticides, experience high rates of injury, and suffer fatalities at five times the rate of other working youth.” The shortage of labor inspections means that many cases of illegal child labor are not reported let alone mitigated. Illegal child labor practices in other industries have also been reported.
- The record of maternal care and rate of maternal mortality in the United States is dismal. The U.S. ranks 46th in the world in the rate of maternal mortality despite spending more than two and a half times on health than the average among OECD countries. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Health Resources and Services Administration, for every maternal death, there are 75 to 100 more women who suffer a life-threatening complication during pregnancy or childbirth. Poor maternity outcomes lead to low birth weight babies, babies with birth defects, and children who are at a significant disadvantage compared with other kids before they’re barely out of the starting gate.
- Millions of children are living in poverty in the United States, which places serious limits on their ability to thrive physically, emotionally, and mentally. In America, nearly 11 million children are poor. That’s 1 in 7 kids, who make up almost one-third of all people living in poverty in this country. The U.S. ranks 36th among advanced countries in the world in the rate of child poverty. Children growing up in poverty have higher levels of physical and mental health problems, greater likelihood of involvement with the juvenile justice system, and poorer employment outcomes as adults.
- The phenomenon of missing or abducted children is shockingly common in America. Every 40 seconds, a child goes missing or is abducted in the United States. Approximately 840,000 people are reported missing each year and the F.B.I. estimates that between 85 and 90 percent of these are children.
- The abuse of children through the production of child pornography is an ever-present reality in today’s media saturated culture. A recent New York Times article pointed to a lack of oversight in filtering out child pornography at the website Pornhub, ”which attracts 3.5 billion visits a month, more than Netflix, Yahoo or Amazon. One ranking lists Pornhub as the 10th-most-visited website in the world . . . A search for “girls under18” (no space) or “14yo” [led] in each case to more than 100,000 videos. ” In many of these videos, teens or preteens are raped. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children indicates over 29 million reports of child sexual exploitation per year in the U.S.
- Many children find themselves and their families homeless in America. A 2021 study by the Childcare Services Association found that 1.3 million infants, toddlers, and preschoolers —1-in-18 children under the age of 6 — experience homelessness every year. Without the security and stability that a home provides, these kids don’t have a foundation upon which to build their hopes, dreams, and goals in life.
- Children are playing less and spending more time on mass media. In the book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv, a fourth-grade boy commented: ”I like to play indoors better ‘cause that’s where all the electrical outlets are.” Gone are the free play activities that children created on their own (using their imagination and creativity), and in their place are video games, social chat rooms, television, streaming content, and other ”virtual” (e.g. ”unreal”) experiences. Daily screen use for eight to twelve year-olds has risen to five hours and thirty-three minutes a day. In my own writings, I’ve suggested that this decrease in free play and increase in mass media consumption is a major contributor to the epidemic of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) that we’ve seen over the past thirty years in our society.
- Millions of children are hungry in America. Statistics suggest that one in every six children in the U.S. are living in a food-insecure household. The lack of a proper diet creates nutritional deficiencies that are injurious to proper brain development, contributing to both physical and mental disabilities when children are at their most vulnerable period of development in life.
- Creativity in children is on the decline, in part due to the schools devoting too much time to standardized testing and core academic subjects. As a result of federal legislation over the past forty years, teachers are under pressure to assign more homework, schedule more standardized tests, and give more focus to reading, math, and science at the expense of art, music, drama, and other creative subjects. One consequence of this according to at least one important research study has been a decline in creativity among young children.
Another disturbing sign of the disappearance of childhood according to the New York Times, is the fact that girls are starting puberty at earlier and earlier ages, with many developing breasts at ages as young as 6 or 7. A similar pattern, though less extreme, has been observed in boys. Some scientists believe this may be linked to increased exposure to blue light emanating from computer screens kids spend too much time staring at.
In addition, statistics indicate that the number of families with no children has increased in the United States over the last two decades. Whether this is a result of rising infertility or socio-economic factors, the Institute for Family Studies says that ”family life in America is changing: marriage is increasingly being postponed, cohabitation is rising, more young people are living with parents (or grandparents), and childbearing is falling.” We are literally becoming more and more (on many different levels) a childless nation.
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