- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 24, 2007

LONDON — Homeward-bound commuters hurry past the gaggle of teens sprawling and skateboarding at dusk on a London street. Hooded and raucous, they’re an image familiar from a thousand newspaper scare stories.

Almost daily in the press, Britain’s young people are treated as a threat. To the tabloids, they’re “hoodies” or “chavs” — feral youths bent on binge drinking and delinquency.

The government has its own lexicon for dealing with troubled teens, from NEETS — young people “not in employment, education or training” — to ASBOs, or “anti-social behavior orders,” used to control the wayward. Recent gun and knife murders involving London teenagers have kept youth and crime together in the headlines.

With such an attitude, children’s advocates say, it’s no surprise Britain placed last in a recent UNICEF survey of children’s well-being in 21 developed countries.

A British think tank has a catchy term for it: pedophobia.

“There has always been a culture in Britain that’s a bit anti-children,” said Julia Margo, one of the authors of a report on British youth for the Institute for Public Policy Research, a center-left think tank. “In the newspaper letters pages, you see constant debates about noisy children on trains.

“There are [also] a great number of children on the streets without anything to do,” she said. “This is what’s contributing to pedophobia.”

The institute’s research found that British adults, more than those in other European countries, view teenagers as a menace. Britons were much less likely to intervene than those in other countries if they saw teens vandalizing a bus shelter — 34 percent said they would try to stop it, compared with 65 percent of Germans and 52 percent of Spaniards.

Surprisingly, many youngsters share that view. It turns out that they’re afraid of each other.

The group of hoodie-wearing skateboarders honing their skills on the concrete steps and sidewalks of London’s financial district may appear just the type to annoy their elders. But all say they have been the victims of muggings, assaults and harassment by other teens. They can see why adults don’t want to get involved.

“It’s the gang culture,” said Lewis Heapy, 17. “In the past, the worst fights would get to was: ‘I ‘m going to get my big brother on you.’ Now it’s: ‘My gang’s going to come and stab you up.’ ”

The UNICEF report, issued in February, said Britain’s young people are the unhappiest in the developed world. While Britain sat in the middle of the table for health and safety, it came second from bottom — just above the United States — for child poverty, and last in “family and peer relationships,” which measured indicators such as single-parent families and time spent with friends and family.

In the UNICEF study, only 40 percent of British respondents said they found their peers “kind and helpful,” compared with more than 80 percent in Switzerland.

British youth scored on top for risky behavior such as drinking, drug use and sex. Almost a third of 11-to-15-year-olds reported having been drunk twice or more, the highest level of any country surveyed.

The report claimed a country’s wealth was not a sufficient guarantee of happy children, since there is “no strong or consistent relationship between per capita GDP and child well-being.”

Britain’s poor performance may be one of the downsides of the country’s embrace of American-style free-market competition — a move that has unleashed enormous economic energy since the 1980s, but widened inequalities and left many without a safety net.

The countries that scored highest — the Netherlands and the Nordic countries of Sweden, Denmark and Finland — displayed relatively low poverty rates with supportive networks of family and friends and low levels of risky behavior by teens.

Britain’s government responded that the data used by UNICEF were compiled between 2001 and 2003, and said progress had been made in many areas.

The opposition blamed family breakdown and a “me-first” culture. Senior Conservative lawmaker Alan Duncan claimed an erosion of authority was leading to a society “living out in real life the disturbing plot of William Golding’s ‘Lord of the Flies’ ” — in which a group of schoolboys stranded on a desert island revert to barbarism.

Analysts say the causes of the problem are complex. Some are specifically British — such as the gray weather that leads adults to socialize in pubs, rather than at outdoor cafes where children are welcome. Britain’s high divorce rate and a long-hours work culture mean many children spend less time with parents than their European counterparts.

Declining birth rates and an aging society may also be creating less tolerance for boisterous youthful behavior.

“We’ve become a chronically offended nation,” said Stuart Waiton of the research group Generation Youth Issues. “Anti-social behavior is less to do with the behavior than with the presumed reaction of adults. Adults can’t cope with children being noisy on their street anymore.”

Newspaper columnist Barbara Ellen — a rare adult voice in support of teens — said the rebelliousness of British youth, which has spawned subcultures from punk to Britpop, is worth celebrating.

“British teenagers are, have always been, by nature, rebellious … and a lot less interested in being fair than they are in being interesting,” she wrote in the Observer.

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide