childhood

Two subjects have recently caught my eye. The first is that childhood is now, apparently, shorter than ever with a poll of Netmums users finding that two-thirds thought childhood ended at 12, while nearly a third thought it ended at 10. The second is that 16- and 17-year olds will be given the vote in the Scottish independence referendum, and calls to lower the voting age in general are growing.

There are many theories as to why children seem to be growing up quicker with an increasingly sexualised culture being regularly cited as the major reason. Recently, Labour MP Dianne Abott attacked the ‘pornification’ of youth culture with explicit sexual images more readily available to youngsters thanks to the internet.

It’s a convincing theory. Childhood is associated strongly with innocence and naivety, especially around adult subjects such as sexuality. Therefore, if children are exposed to a sexualised society through pop stars and porn at an earlier age, their childhood will be cut short, right? Examples of young teen pregnancies and sexual behaviour by children reported in the media would seem to suggest that this theory is correct.

But then, despite the sexual behaviour, these children are still children. Legal formalities aside, you become an adult through maturity physically and intellectually and people arrive at this maturity at different times. Rihanna’s exposed skin on music channels doesn’t make thirteen year-olds adults, they’re neither physically or mentally mature enough to be so. They might not be children anymore at 13 but this is because they’ve entered adolescence, a stage of in-between which everybody goes through.

It’s argued that people had a longer childhood in the past, before we entered the Age of the Internet. The Representation of the People Act 1969 (passed in 1970) reduced the voting age in the United Kingdom from 21 to 18. I can’t comment on what society was like back then but I can guess that the youth movement of the 1960s and 70s would have led adults of the time to say that their children were growing up too fast. Was talk of, and subsequent passing of, a lowered voting age a symptom or a cause of this youth movement?

Back to the present day, there are swathes of people lamenting the shortening of childhood. But there are also swathes of people calling for the voting age to be lowered to 16. It strikes me that if 16 year-olds have the option of voting, they will be encouraged to grow to adult levels of maturity by that age, which is bound to shorten their childhood.

According to a recent YouGov poll, 35% of Scots are in favour of allowing 16- and 17-year olds to vote in UK general elections. This is about the same number of people who thought that childhood ended at age 10 in the Netmums survey.

Personally, I wouldn’t lower the voting age to 16 as I think that, while many 16- and 17-year olds may say that they are mature enough to vote, I think that a large number aren’t. I have seen myself how my age group has progressed in maturity over the last two years since we finished our GCSE’s and know how easily we, more than any other age group, were influenced by perception rather than policy around the last general election in 2010.

The transition between childhood to adulthood is an important one, a stage where an individual can experiment with fashions and styles (usually heavily influenced by their peers). When they emerge at the other side as an adult, some sooner than others, they have ‘found themselves’ and know who they are, what they think and what they’re about.

It’s important that we are given this time to adjust to adult life before being thrust into it. Speaking from my own experience of my life and those around me, it seems to me that we form our own views (ideological, religious and political) nearer to 18 than 16.

The debates about a lower voting age and the perceived shortening of childhood are intertwined and, to me, it seems clear that if you want your child to remain childlike you shouldn’t expect them to engage in politics at 16.

BY: Mark Thompson