Every time a politician says they care about children, I laugh – they are failing them on every level

Janet Street-Porter
Children are facing risks from social media, gambling, obesity and online grooming: PA

You can tell when politicians are floundering, clueless, up s**t creek without a paddle. Out come apocalyptic statements like “social media is as bad for children as smoking and obesity”. Yes, Jeremy Hunt, you may be right – but what action is being taken to protect the next generation? Show us real policies, not worthy mission statements, that deal with the time bomb of rampant child obesity, mental illness and eating disorders that can affect as many as one in four.

Children all over the developed world are getting fatter – but there’s a marked lack of joined-up policy. In the US, Weight Watchers has just announced a free six-week programme for any teenager that walks into one of their centres accompanied by an adult. As a result, their shares soared 17 per cent in a day – but critics have pointed out that putting children on calorie controlled diets is not necessarily the best long-term solution – far better to re-educate teenagers about the benefits of moderate consumption without restriction, as well as guidance on food preparation.

In this country, attempts to deal with child obesity are equally misguided and short term – a recent trial scheme in the West Midlands ended with the kids who took part in a healthy eating and exercise programme failing to lose weight or exercise more than those who didn’t participate. One expert has suggested that offering cash incentives might work better – but when these schemes have been trialled with adults, they haven’t worked either.

Child obesity needs a joint approach involving education and health – compulsory school meals, investment in catering facilities, compulsory cooking, compulsory physical exercise. A joined-up strategy that might be draconian, but would yield results.

As for talking about the negative impact of social media on the young, Jeremy Hunt’s remarks are equally disingenuous. In 2008, the Labour government commissioned a review into the relationship between young people and new technology led by clinical psychologist Dr Tanya Byron. Her report, entitled Safer Children in a Digital World, made a series of recommendations, but ten years later only 11 out of 38 have been implemented and it’s taken until now for the Government to proudly launch their Internet Safety Strategy.

The Home Office is creating a voluntary code for websites but it’s too little, too late according to the NSPCC, who want the rules to be mandatory, with a regulator empowered to impose fines for abuse. In the first six months since the offence of “sexual communication with a child” (ie grooming) was enshrined in law, there have been 1300 offences recorded, the vast majority on Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram – and yet the Government still thinks the industry can police itself, in spite of daily complaints about unsuitable material on YouTube and Facebook in advertising and in postings.

Successive governments have watched the tech companies dictate the agenda, watched social media hijack children’s lives and done absolutely nothing. The same thing has happened with junk food and gambling. Politicians are in bed with the big producers and retailers, reluctant to impose taxes on fat, salt, sugar. Labelling is a complete disaster area. As for gambling, a recent study found that one in four young men waiting to see their GP in the Bristol area had gambling problems to a greater or lesser degree. One in five of the 1,000 18-24 year olds who took part in the study were classified as having a “severe” issue.

Online gaming is creating a generation of child addicts. Child protection means not just protection from physical harm, but setting strict boundaries and rules which give children a framework for life. These must include educating parents in what their job is – a primary school headteacher in the north of England has been forced to write to parents asking them to stop smoking cannabis and swearing outside the school gates and in the playground when they collect and drop off their kids. As for children in care, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has uncovered the disturbing news that more than half of the local authorities in England are planning to allocate less money to children’s services in the coming months. Scheme helping disabled children, funding for children protection teams and children’s homes are all being cut by hundreds of thousands of pounds.

Every time politicians say they care about children, I laugh. The truth is, children are right at the bottom of their priorities, because politicians are 100 per cent scared of offending people. That’s why they haven’t closed religious schools, they haven’t banned the wearing of the hijab in primary schools, they haven’t ordered local councils to restrict fast food outlets near school gates. In France, President Macron has just issued an edict – mobile phones will be banned in all state primary schools from September, and for the first four years of secondary school. He has also ordered 70,000 primary schools to hold compulsory singing classes and choir practice in a move to create social cohesion. Unpopular moves with some parents and teachers, but highly necessary.

It’s hard to see why the UK has not followed his lead. Could it be that our politicians are so cynical, so spineless, so determined to see “all points of view”, so craven to win votes and popularity – that they have decided to fail children by being utterly feeble?