Research
28 Jul 2010

Paranoid parents, media hysteria and the myth of childhood in crisis

Childhood in crisis?

Childhood in crisis?

Research conducted by Dr Mary-Jane Kehily, an expert in childhood and youth at The Open University, suggests that the current perception that childhood is ‘in crisis’ is essentially a media construct and not a new phenomenon. Researching into the issue over the past six years, Dr Kehily argues in the paper, ‘Childhood in crisis? Tracing the contours of ‘crisis’ and its impact upon contemporary parenting practices’, that the perception is actually a reflection of adult anxiety and insecurity in today’s modern age.

Dr Kehily says: “Whereas once Western childhoods were something to aspire to, we are now led to believe that childhood in the West is in crisis, and imploding. This is a construct led by media hysteria and compounded by the loss of confidence amongst parents - who feel under increased pressure and surveillance. In what is now a risk-conscious society, the child is a treasured emotional investment, providing security for parents in an insecure world.”

Dr Kehily examined reports, books, media and particularly parenting magazines when researching, putting these into the context of past debates over childhood, and she found that there has been a “sea change in attitudes towards and perceptions of childhood.” Today, nostalgic romantic visions of how childhood should be are blended with consumerism and the increased availability of scientific knowledge, giving modern child-parent relationships a unique character. Dr Kehily argues this is typified by the rise in 4D scans, giving parents increased reassurance before the child is born. Scientific procedures such as stem cell harvesting are also increasingly popular, with parents seeing this as a way to minimise future health risks.

“Childhood has been reconfigured,” says Dr Kehily. “The burgeoning availability of parenting advice through magazines, books and television programmes has given rise to a moral panic. The assumption is that childhood is not what it used to be and that this, in itself, signals catastrophe.”

Dr Kehily’s article appears in the journal Media, Culture and Society.

Notes to Editors
Mary Jane Kehily is Senior Lecturer in Childhood and Youth Studies at The Open University. She has research interests in children and young people, gender and sexuality, narrative and identity, and popular culture.

Recent publications include:
An Introduction to Childhood Studies (Open University Press, 2004),
Sexuality, Gender and Schooling (RoutledgeFalmer, 2002)
Children's Cultural Worlds(Wiley: Chichester, 2003)

About The Open University
•The Open University climbed 23 places to 43rd in the UK’s latest Research Assessment Exercise (RAE 2008), securing a place in the UK’s top 50 higher education institutions. Results showed that more than 50% of the University’s research is internationally excellent (3*), with a significant proportion world-leading (4*).

•The Open University is the UK’s largest university and the world leader in distance education, and celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2009. It has more than 200,000 students in over 40 countries. Of these, more than 1,100 are postgraduate research students.

•Open Research Online (ORO), the University’s freely accessible repository of research publications, is available at: http://oro.open.ac.uk. ORO has around 30,000 visitors from 170 different countries each month, and is currently ranked the fifth best higher education repository in the UK by the Registry of Open Access Repositories (ROAR).

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