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We are facing a real crisis among our children and young people in the UK. While official statistics show a sharp rise in depression, anxiety and suicidality in young people, I don’t believe that even these frightening figures have caught up with the increasing numbers of children and adolescents in emotional and mental distress. Those of us working with children and families are aware of a feeling of crisis in the numbers of children referred. Colleagues working in emergency services have reported rocketing numbers of referrals for suicide attempts. At our clinics we have seen a huge increase in both the numbers of referrals and the severity of presenting issues.
As a child and adolescent therapist I have come to feel like I am treating the symptoms of a much larger problem and have been trying to understand what it is that is causing such distress in our young people. Sadly I don’t think it is just one issue, which then makes it complicated to untangle. However, I do think that there are three strong contributing factors that, if tackled, could make a significant difference.
Firstly, we have moved to a digital age in which our minds are required to think constantly and without break. We no longer have moments of peace or reflection, children have less moments of quiet, reflective play. Adolescents in particular are caught up in the speed of thinking that the digital age presents. In any spare moment which might once have been given to a moment of rest or quiet, there is now a digital ‘filler’. We pick up our phones and keep our minds moving, looking for input, hoping for some fulfilment from an email, recognition from someone on social media, a highest score on a game. We are in a constant state of looking and wanting to gain something.
For those of us that are adults and whose experience spans both an analogue and a digital age, we have some capacity to manage this. But for children born into a digital age they have no mediating factors. Less and less time is being spent on the things that help healthy development: play, quiet reflection and social interaction; and more and more time is spent giving in to a digital hunger which quickly becomes an addiction. Their developing brains are being trained to be constantly on the alert for the next move.
Partly as a consequence of the quickening pace of the digital age, we are spending less time as a family and in social groups. It is more common for parents to bring their work home and have emails on their phone that come in at any time of the day and night. The consequence is that work requires immediate attention, and our children are suddenly ‘dropped’ as we turn away from them. In turn our children turn away and look for their own screen fulfilment to replace the attention they just lost.
As a result we are not giving our children a feeling of being held, or teaching them how to trust in the depth of a relationship. We are not containing of their needs and emotions and they then have to find a way of managing these on their own – usually by turning back to a screen themselves.
Equally, children’s own social groups are less and less ‘in person’ they are often on group chats, over computer games or via social media. These are not formats which encourage an ever growing need for ‘instant fulfilment’ and a way of portraying yourself online which will get you want you want rather than develop a clear idea of their own strengths and personality traits. This leaves many adolescents with a poor sense of themselves and who they are if they are not trying to please others, resulting in a lack of self-worth, low self-confidence and a feeling of emptiness.
Lastly, just to add to all the above, we seem to be asking more and more of our children. School hours are getting longer, more and more homework is set, we sign children up for after school classes and we expect them to achieve highly in school. Children are given the message by everyone they come into contact with that they should do more, get more, be more. In the absence of a strong sense of who they are, achievement becomes a milestone they can measure themselves by and they then start to add pressure to themselves as well as that which is heaped on by their environment. So many of the children who are referred to us are burnt out, exhausted, or in a state of manic frenzy trying to keep up with everything that is expected of them.
What can we do?
As parents of children born into this age, what can we do to help our children? I should start by saying that I don’t think it will help to just ban all screens, not unless we are prepared to radically change our lives in a way which gives children another way of being fulfilled. But we can set limits and make some protected time for other things. And if we take away the crutches they are used to we will have to spend time and energy being with them, teaching them how else to spend their time. Being willing to take a moaning child out on a walk and to talk to them about school and friends. We cannot ban screen time for them and then leave them to their own devices while we ‘get on with emails’!
We can make some protected time in the family where no one, especially not parents, is on their screens, where we all manage our digital addiction and learn to manage ourselves without leaping to a screen fix. And use this time to talk. I know its cliché but talking and communication really is so important.
To be clear, I don’t think all screens are bad. I even think that, given how exhausted our children’s brains are, it is helpful to create some down-time with television or movies. Ideally if it is also spent cuddling up as a family, giggling about comedies, pausing and discussing the programme, and making it an interactive event. Touching and cuddling up is another protective factor that fosters closeness and a feeling of comfort and safety in children.
But most of all I urge all parents to take stock of their children’s emotional and mental health. Keep an eye on them, watch carefully when they are stressed and look at how you can take the pressure off. Change the mind-set from pushing for more, to helping everyone to manage to do less, in this particular day and time that is the bigger, more valuable, achievement.
Ryan Lowe is the clinical director of The Therapeutic Consultants. Ryan has worked as a child psychotherapist and as an expert witness.
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