A timebomb for children's mental health

By John Freeman

| 07 October 2016

Call me a Luddite - I'm happy for you to do so - but I have a strong feeling that there are a number of trends coming together in modern society, and particularly for children and young people, which will, together, have long-term powerfully negative, and to a large extent unknown and unknowable, consequences.

I'm well aware, as I write this, that the preceding sentence could have been written by my parents in, say, the 1960s, or even my grandparents, in the 1930s. But I do believe that the pace of change has accelerated to a point where there is little we can do except watch what happens and try to deal with the consequences. I certainly don't know the answers - but I'll come back to that at the end of this blog.

The trends I am talking about all seem obvious and certainly are not new - and, together, they impact sharply - and negatively - on children's mental health, socialisation, and learning.

First, we have the well-documented phenomenon of celebrity and sub-celebrity culture being played out 24/7 in front of the whole world. Stars who are famous for being famous, stars who are hugely rewarded because they happen to be able to kick a ball; ordinary people who become stars without any apparent effort, all of these are exemplars that our children see, and, too often, want to emulate. The problem, of course, is that very, very few people succeed in this way, but success is always made to seem easier than it is. This leads both to broken dreams, problems with self-esteem, and reduced or distorted aspirations as they relate to the ‘real' world. For many children and young people, this is all made worse by the lack of any obvious local career or occupation, in our post-industrial society.

Second, we have completely unrealistic expectations driven by the media - and I include in this the traditional broadcast media but more importantly social media. The social media are particularly pervasive because they are ever-present on smart phones - there is no escape. To choose two celebrities who come to (even my!) mind easily, Kim Kardashian-West (net worth over $50 million from a career in reality TV) has nearly 50 million followers on Twitter - Wayne Rooney (salary £300,000 per week from football) has nearly 14 million followers.

Third, we have the related body-shaming driven by the same media - where both boys and girls, but predominantly girls, either become ashamed of their body and lose self-esteem, or attempt to change their body in various unhelpful and unhealthy ways. The outcome is a general increase in the prevalence of eating disorders, and more generally in poorer mental health. This is exacerbated, perhaps, by the obesity crisis overtaking us - noting that the NHS already spends more on obesity than the police, the judicial system and the fire service combined!

Fourth, we have the increasing prevalence of cyber-bullying, which is more insidious than physical bullying in two ways; from the outside you can't see it happening; and unlike physical bullying, there is no escape by distance or time. Smart phones are always there, and everyone looks at them all the time. And the pressures of "ganging-up" are more extreme when there is no down-time.

Fifth, there are all sorts of developmental issues about the use of the new technologies from a young age. Being left with an iPad to play with at age five is not uncommon, and will reduce the overall time spent talking with a child - and of course adults bear much responsibility here; the smart phone makes it much easier to talk to friends and family and therefore much easier to ignore the toddler in the buggy - especially when they are facing away from you. Language delay and poor socialisation are two other insidious problems which early years settings and schools are reporting more and more frequently. I see that the Danish government is making language catch-up classes compulsory from the age of two with a child benefit sanction for non-compliant parents. I'm not sure about the sanctions, but I'm certain that early intervention is better than late intervention - while of course avoiding the need for intervention through parental education and changing parental behaviours is the ideal.

So where does all that take us? I really don't know the answers. But … I'd like to see better parenting education. I'd like to see schools - even grammar schools - focusing on more than the "academic" curriculum. I'd like to see more and better employment opportunities. Above all, I'd like to see children's centres protected and enhanced. Perhaps we can use the new Conservative Party dog-whistle of "promoting social mobility" to argue the case. But if we don't deal with these issues, I believe that, within 10 years, by around 2026 when our current primary children are leaving school, all this will have come together in a perfect storm with unpredictable but serious consequences.

But, as I said at the start, I'm a Luddite. Are you?

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