Children growing up too fast - experts
Children today are growing up too fast and acting like adults at a very early age, child health experts say.
With television and the internet playing an increasing role in their lives, children are often exposed to ideas and issues they cannot comprehend fully.
They are coming under influences that were kept away from them in the past , and sometimes their parents are to blame.
Parents who want to give the best edge to their kids in a competitive world put a lot of emphasis on excellence, early childhood educator Kimberly Powell said.
The effect is to put pressure on children to grow up early in a consumerist society.
"In the process, children are being robbed of their childhoods and innocence," said Dr Powell, a professor at Massey University in Palmerston North.
Younger teens did not have the maturity to deal with ideas that were once first encountered by adolescents.
A British study of primary education last year said that 3.5 million children in the United Kingdom were affected by a worrying "loss of childhood".
Adolescence was also naturally occurring much earlier, it said.
Dr Powell and other child health experts were worried teenagers were becoming sexually active much earlier than they should, and experimenting with drugs.
New Zealand teens are showing the world the way, with the third-highest teen pregnancy rate in the developed world.
Figures for 2006 showed 28.4 births per 1000 girls aged 15-19, up from a 10-year low of 25.6 in 2001.
Factors often blamed for the rise of "teen-adults" included television, the internet, absentee and lenient parents, ugly divorces, terminal illnesses, sexual and social abuse and peer pressure.
"It is a world-wide trend and parents are often only taking minimal responsibility for proper care of their children," Dr Powell said.
"They easily blame it all on work, financial commitments and contemporary lifestyles."
Parents said they were unable to cope with today's teen responsibilities and commitments as they had changed so much from previous generations.
Canterbury teachers last year complained children were growing up too quickly because "we live in a society where everything is instant and that is affecting children".
There were other factors exacting a toll on children's normal growth, Dr Powell said.
"Many parents appear to have a lack of understanding about what is the appropriate development for their child at a given age."
Far more children were starting education at a younger age, and pre-school enrolments had risen.
Child psychiatrists reported more children were seeking counselling.
It was as if society had made a collective decision to stop children from being children, Dr Powell said.
"We want them to grow up too fast by force-feeding them materialistic ideas and the consumer culture."
Kids Help Trust Foundation executive director Grant Taylor said it was alarmist to say children grew up too fast these days.
The foundation runs a free telephone counselling service called What's Up for those between the ages of five and 18 years.
Mr Taylor reckoned kids were way ahead of adults in terms of their ability to make sense of the world.
"Children are capable of making pretty good decisions a lot of the time as long as they are well supported by parents.
"We ought not to expect things of them that they are not capable of, and by the same token we should not treat them as being completely incapable and unknowledgeable about the world they are experiencing."
Child psychotherapist Lauren Porter pinpointed the internet as playing a huge role in emotional, psychological and social development.
"Children today were perceiving anything on the internet as valid, regardless of whether it was good or bad information – and regardless whether it is a dodgy contact or good one."
Ms Porter , based in Hamilton, said it was alarming to see teenagers disconnected with their families and isolated emotionally, connecting up with the internet.
"They retreat into this virtual world and let go of more personal connections with people, and it's quite a convenient thing."
The internet was a sanctuary misguided teenagers often sought for the wrong reasons, in the absence of a strong family, she said.
Children were also losing out because parents held monetary success to be the most important decision-making factor in life.
"Whether it is a family trying to decide if both parents should be working fulltime when they have a baby or otherwise, it is all about our financial status and it cuts right across our culture."
She felt not only were children growing up too fast, but they were also moving too fast in the wrong direction.
"Children need protection, and it is critical they are not burdened with adult responsibilities and adult concerns and exposed to adult things."
She lamented society becoming so driven by capitalism and a sexualised, status- and fad-crazy marketplace.
Children were simply a new marketing set for corporations to chase.
Marketers target "tweens" – kids between eight and 12 – as they have found these kids were shopping for their own clothes, shoes and personal accessories.
They were being recognised as independent and sophisticated consumers.
Television promoted the "celebrity cult" and its anti-social behaviour and materialism with the likes of the troubled Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton and Miley Cyrus having a huge impact on kids.
Millions of dollars were being made on children's fashion, amid complaints it looked very much like adult fashion.
Ms Porter said society, schools and parents were pushing children to grow up too fast.
Research showed that the way you made a resilient, healthy, independent, human being was to "nurture, nurture and nurture" and they emerged when they were strong in themselves, she said.
The loss of family life to allow more hours at work invariably expanded the power of the peer group.
With both parents at work, often youngsters were leaving for school, having made and eaten their breakfast alone, Dr Powell said.
"And now children are making their own lunches and letting themselves out in the morning. And on their way home they pick up takeaway dinners and probably eat that all by themselves too.
"There is a lot of responsibility expected of children – a different kind of responsibility from (that) expected when we were kids."
Unsupervised responsibility caused stress on young children.
While parents should be there to sort out problems, Dr Powell said she often heard from teenagers that "my mum does not care what I do. She probably doesn't even know where I am now!"
"Teenagers think that, because their parents do not care, it is somehow a good thing. They don't realise that the parents who are strict are the ones who actually care for the kids."
Most parents were struggling to bring up kids and they should be given the necessary support, Ms Porter said.
"If we do not support parents, all the knowledge about child development in the world is useless, because the people who matter the most in children's lives are not getting the support they need.
"We need to stop talking about forcing women back into the workforce with economic incentives."
The best investment for young children was not to get mothers, especially solo mums, back into the workforce, but to pay them to stay home with their children, Ms Porter said.