Regular readers of my column will know how sceptical (and occasionally angry) I get when authority figures attempt to pin responsibility for the child and adolescent mental health crisis on smartphones and social media.
It’s not that I don’t acknowledge the theory that 24-hour web accessibility has had a huge impact on the way young people think, behave and communicate. It’s more that to say "we can track the steep rise in self-harm and anxiety back to 2010 and this is clearly because of technological advancement" (as I have heard on numerous occasions) conveniently forgets that 2010 also saw the beginnings of austerity measures which disproportionately affected the young, as well as education policy changes including increased testing and less access to the arts. Both of these have, in my opinion, had a catastrophic impact on children’s mental health and using social media as a catch-all bogeyman has allowed policymakers to absolve themselves of their responsibility.
However, last week I heard something which genuinely gave me pause. I was attending a networking event organised by the Shaw Mind Foundation, a charity which provides mental health support for primary and secondary schools. One of the speakers was Tana Macpherson-Smith, founder of Clearminds, an organisation which works with children to improve their wellbeing. She claimed that social and cognitive development in children under 8 is 18 months behind where it was five years ago, and placed the blame on phone use. Refreshingly, though, Tana pointed to parents’ preoccupation with smartphones and the way this interfered with social interaction. I later asked her to elaborate and she told me:
“Parents these days are so engaged with their mobile phones. You see them messaging or on social media whilst pushing babies in prams, or when holding their children in their arms. They’re not engaging with them in a way that’s imperative to their development."
Children 'need face-to-face contact'
Tana’s remarks reminded me of the number of times I’ve been approached by parents in a school setting, asking for tips on how to get their children "off social media" and who are actually typing on their phones as they ask me. She continued:
“Babies need face-to-face, eyeball-to-eyeball contact as often as possible if they are to learn and recognise, fully understand and interpret the meaning of facial expressions in combination with the voice through which they learn to identify emotions and communication. Without this closeness and focus of attention, their abilities to develop empathy and strong communication skills are really diminishing and we are already seeing this in schools”.
Tana goes on to discuss the impact on self-esteem. If a parent is constantly preoccupied with their phone, a child might develop beliefs about not being important enough, or of being invisible. Low self-esteem is a primary diagnostic criteria in pretty much every mental health issue, and certainly in the most common ones seen in adolescence – anxiety, depression, eating disorders and self-harm.
Indeed, adult smartphone obsession is now so prevalent that, according to one of the UK’s leading veterinary surgeons, Iain Booth, it’s even making our pets depressed. Speaking to the Metro, Booth advised dog owners to keep their phones in their pockets whilst going on walks, to reassure their hound and avoid "knocking them for six" through lack of attention.
I recently made some adjustments to my own behaviour, after reading Shahroo Izadi’s book,The Kindness Method’. I ensure the "bookends" of my day are protected by resisting the urge to look at my phone until I am showered, dressed and breakfasted and putting my phone in a drawer at 8pm. I often hear self-employed people like me say that to be away from their phone might mean they miss a work opportunity, so I’ve invested in a smart-watch which vibrates when I receive a call and also acts as an alarm clock. That way I can relax, knowing that if anyone’s trying to phone me I’ll know, but won’t spend the entire evening down a "switching endlessly between the same three apps" rabbit hole.
I asked Childnet, the charity devoted to improving internet safety for young people, what advice they’d give to parents. Their spokesperson Becca Cawthorne said:
“Before posting a photograph of your child online, ask for their permission. Remember that you are adding to their digital footprint even if you are posting it to your own account." This is, of course, also a handy lesson in consent (a hot topic in education right now). Becca added:
“Creating a family agreement is a great way for you for all of you to agree on the ways you will each act online by making a list of positive behaviours. Childnet has a free family agreement template to help get you started on this”.
For all the adults concerned about the impact of social media, pornography, WhatsApp groups and FOMO on the younger generation, it’s clearly a case of "physician heal thyself". Adults need to role-model the behaviour they want to see.
Natasha Devon MBE is the former government mental health champion. She is a writer and campaigner and typically visits three schools per week across the UK. She tweets @_natashadevon