For once, a moral panic that could be useful. “Heavy web use harms children,” screamed a Daily Mail front page this week. Others followed suit with comparably alarming headlines. To be fair, the concern is not new, and to suggest that it’s all the fault of the web is misleading. But it is absolutely right to highlight some very disturbing trends in child and adolescent mental health that are accelerating. Frankly, when things are as bad as they seem to be, you need every ally – and it’s just possible that this government may begin to realise the importance of the issue if the Daily l screams at it.
So what are the bones of this? Back in 2004, the first academic studies of trends in child and adolescent mental health began to report a worrying deterioration, but no one was identifying what was driving it. The obvious point here is that this was before the explosion in social media. So the origins of this crisis – and it is a crisis – do not lie in massive overuse of the web, but elsewhere.
But if things looked worrying in 2004, they look a darn sight worse today, 10 years later. The Public Health England report submitted to a health select committee inquiry – on which the Mail based its story – cites research indicating a sharp worsening of the trends. In the last three to four years, there has been a steep rise in self-harm. Childline reports that in 2013 it experienced a 41% increase in reports of self-harm and a 33% increase of children reporting suicidal thoughts over the previous year. Public Health England concludes that 30% of English adolescents have sub-clinical mental health problems. These figures are catastrophic: we are raising children who are ill.
We still have limited understanding of some key questions. Are children less resilient to life’s ups and downs – and if so, why? Is it right to point the finger at a toxic form of social anxiety that is fuelled by social media, and if so, what elements – such as growing inequality, poverty and celebrity culture – drive that social anxiety? Common sense points to much of this, but what’s needed is rigorous research to prevent children’s health being used merely to promote individual political platforms. Pinning it all on a child’s heavy use of the web is a neat way to dodge the wider political implications of inequality, which are just as relevant.
The issue should be the subject of Downing Street crisis seminars, taskforces and tsars – all the usual paraphernalia that indicates that some political will is being mobilised to tackle this. But the real test of the urgently needed political commitment is spending. Read the expert evidence submitted to the health select committee’s much needed inquiry. “A system under siege”, “a rising tide of need” and “schools desperate for help” is how a series of experts describe what’s happening to child and adolescent mental health services. They are struggling to cope with the double whammy of a steep rise in demand combined with deep cuts to services.
The response of the MPs on the committee was lamentable – barely disguised irritation at the length of answers from anguished professionals at the frontline. Even worse, one MP in that stiff-upper-lip tradition asked why these youngsters couldn’t just “sort themselves out”.
Tell the canaries to sing while the noxious gases are overwhelming them. I don’t know a family not touched in some way by this epidemic; I don’t know a teenager not already dealing with it either personally, in their class, at school or among their friends.
Digital disruption is often used in relation to businesses and institutions, but we need to be much more alert to its impact on our idea of home. Since the emergence of capitalism, home has been idealised as “a haven in a heartless world”. It didn’t always work out that way, of course. But what did hold true was that a different set of values and ideals governed the home, its relationships, and the raising of children.
Home was supposed to be about responsibility, care without calculation, and privacy. It offered a refuge from the economic relationships of the outside world, where efficiency ruled; where people could be used as means not ends, exploited and instrumentalised. Crucially, the home was expected to provide children with protection from such transactional relationships until they reached maturity. The web has blown apart the fragile boundary between the two, making our homes into marketplaces where we are expected to trade ourselves. What social media grooms in us is a desire, and an ability, to sell ourselves: our wonderful lives and friends, our fascinating thoughts. The currency is not monetary but status.
In the select committee hearing, one expert, the clinical psychology professor Peter Fonagy, made the point: “We make children very responsible for their lives but we give them very little control over them.” The combination of responsibility and lack of control always creates stress in anyone at any age, he added.
As a form of socialisation for children, it strikes me as disastrous. Only those with considerable alternative resources – strong, loving families, attentive and content parents, the good fortune of having loyal friends, good schools alert to their wellbeing as well as achievement – will manage to get through to adulthood relatively unscathed. It goes without saying that poverty reduces the chances of all these. So this is an epidemic that will fall disproportionately on the poorest, with consequences that will last a lifetime. We have created a cruel lottery for children.
This article first appeared on The Guardian on 21 May, 2014.