Tanya Byron
Child psychologist Tanya Byron says parents have become over-protective of their children .

Paranoid parents are stunting their children's development by cocooning them indoors and preventing them from playing outside, according to a leading child psychologist.

Professor Tanya Byron believes that exaggerated fears over health and safety and paedophilia have led to a children being banned from having snowball fights, driven to school at 12 and suffering injuries from simple falls.

In her speech to the North of England Education Conference, held 16-18 January in Sheffield, Professor Byron, who has featured in television programmes including Little Angels and The House of Tiny Tearaways, said: "We live in a risk-averse culture, the levels of paranoia about health and safety and wellbeing are insane.

"Most children spend most of their childhoods being raised in captivity.

"There are no more predators on the streets, no more paedophiles, than when I was growing up in the 1970s."

She argued that there are better systems now for tracking those people who have "wholly inappropriate relationships around children".

Last year research conducted by the charity Play for England, which campaigns for children to be allowed to play outdoors, showed that nearly half of the parents surveyed did not let their children play outside because of fear of strangers, while 31 percent said that they kept their children indoors because of a fear of accidents.

Professor Byron said that children used to fall all the time and scabs were seen as a "badge of honour".

Now, however, she said increasing numbers were being admitted to A&E for minor injuries because "they don't know how to fall any more. They tense themselves up when they fall, so they sprain."

She quoted school directives banning children throwing snowballs over fears they may contain grit and ruling they must wear goggles during conker fights as examples of the climate of excessive caution.

A study published on 18 January by Chessington World of Adventures showed that one third of parents think it is too dangerous to let their children play outside in the snow.

Professor Byron, who carried out a government review into the effects of the internet and computer games on children, told delegates that the dangers children face online are often worse than those they face outside.

"They are taking risks we are not preparing them for. They are having a blast in this fantastic global space. I would argue they are more vulnerable there than if they were hanging out on the street."

She also attacked the government's education policy for resulting in the lop-sided development of children and failing to encourage emotional intelligence.

"IQ is something that the government is very interested in and they see IQ as determined by exam results."

She said anyone who has spent time researching the subject knows that "exam results are the least reliable indicator of intelligence".

Prof Byron told delegates: "If we do believe that the only way to get the education system back on track is to take it back to the 1970s, we're completely delusional. It's letting children down."