We may be breeding a generation of unfit, overweight kids at higher risk of obesity ailments because they don't explore their neighbourhoods as much as their parents used to, according to a PhD study at Auckland University of Technology.
Julie Bhosale has spent the last few years tracking the independent mobility of intermediate school-aged children to establish the time spent roaming around their neighbourhoods and playing without parental supervision. She found kids in New Zealand are 50 per cent less likely to roam independently than their parents because they are often worried about safety.
Her study shows children, from a range of ethnic backgrounds and socio-economic groups, spend significantly less time outdoors unsupervised than their parents did when they were young. This has implications for the physical health plus the social and mental development of the children involved.
According to national figures, around 35 per cent of children in New Zealand are overweight or obese. An increasingly sedentary lifestyle spent in front of game consoles and computer screens is partially to blame but parental attitudes towards safety also limit the time children engage in unsupervised exercise.
Bhosale's research used questionnaires, personal interviews and a computer mapping programme to track movements of the children. Significant disparities were recorded when it came to independent mobility of the children and their parents.
"The children were 50 per cent less likely to be given permission to play unsupervised than their parents were at the same age," says Bhosale. "They were four times less likely to be allowed to ride their bikes to school than their parents. Those parents, when they were young, were 11 times more likely to walk or cycle to and from school."
In one single week period, 26 per cent of children monitored weren't allowed to go anywhere without supervision.
Bhosale says the research has established a clear correlation between independent mobility and physical activity. Children who live the most sedentary lifestyles are least likely to be granted freedom to explore the world unsupervised - and that has a direct impact of their health.
"We are seeing hypertension in children as early as those in the study who don't get enough exercise," says Bhosale. "The life expectancy of these children is likely to be significantly lowered as a result."
Lack of independent mobility has other implications. If children aren't allowed to walk to and from school together without adult supervision, they are less likely to develop social bonds with their peers.
Scott Duncan is Bhosale's supervisor and an expert on physical activity and free play at AUT's Human Potential team. He says free play, including independent mobility, has many benefits.
"Children need to be exposed to some actual risk in order to develop their risk management skills," he says. "We should be focusing on the long game when raising kids, not the short game.
"Children need to be free to make mistakes and learn from them. Avoiding all scrapes and bruises might be easier in the short-term but it makes it less likely children will develop resilience, independence and problem-solving skills."
Safety is a key reason why parents restrict their children's independent mobility. Traffic is put forward as the main factor; "stranger danger" is also a key issue.
Bhosale says that, as a mother of two young children, she can understand why parents are concerned about safety but, paradoxically, some action taken to prevent this perceived danger can exacerbate the problems.
"Parents say they are worried about their children being unsupervised around traffic, so they pick them up and drop them off at school, creating more traffic," she says. "If children aren't allowed to walk to and from school with their friends, it means they don't have a community of other children who can protect them from potential danger."
An increase in dual working parent families is also a significant factor. With added time pressures for families, greater numbers of children are being driven to school on their parents' journeys to work.
A rise in supervised extra-curricular activities runs alongside the reduction in unsupervised play opportunities for children. The research has revealed that, while children monitored were four times more likely to be involved with such activities than their parents, they often didn't provide enough activity to make a significant impact.
"Children are designed to move all day," says Bhosale. "They are designed to wander, dawdle and climb trees. If children are only active for one brief period a day and sedentary the rest of the time, there are still likely to be physiological consequences."
Duncan says, in our risk-adverse society, we have moved towards a situation where any risk children face is bad and must be avoided, restricting independent mobility.
"We are recommending parents and teachers balance the risks of a given activity with the potential benefits" he says. "Activities with too much risk and not much benefit should obviously be avoided. But there are plenty of activities that do not carry much risk but are beneficial for children."
Read more from AUT Research here