Are smartphones making our children mentally ill?
Leading child psychotherapist Julie Lynn Evans believes easy and constant access to the internet is harming youngsters
Julie Lynn Evans has been a child psychotherapist for 25 years, working in hospitals, schools and with families, and she says she has never been so busy.
“In the 1990s, I would have had one or two attempted suicides a year – mainly teenaged girls taking overdoses, the things that don’t get reported. Now, I could have as many as four a month.”
And it’s not, she notes, simply a question of her reputation as both a practitioner and a writer drawing so many people to the door of her cosy consulting rooms in west London where we meet. “If I try to refer people on, everyone else is choc-a-bloc too. We are all saying the same thing. There has been an explosion in numbers in mental health problems amongst youngsters.”
The Care Minister, Norman Lamb, has this week been promising a “complete overhaul” of the system that deals with these troubled tweens and teens, after a Department of Health report highlighted the negative impact of funding cuts. And the three main party leaders have all made encouraging pre-election noises about putting more resources into mental health services.
Yet, while the down-to-earth Lynn Evans welcomes the prospect of additional funding, this divorced, Canadian-born mother of three grown up children, isn’t convinced that it is the solution to the current crisis.
The floodgates of desperate youngsters opened, she recalls, in 2010. “I saw my work increase by a mad amount and so did others I work with. Suddenly everything got much more dangerous, much more immediate, much more painful.”
Official figures confirm the picture she paints, with emergency admissions to child psychiatric wards doubling in four years, and those young adults hospitalised for self-harm up by 70 per cent in a decade.
“Something is clearly happening,” she says, “because I am seeing the evidence in the numbers of depressive, anorexic, cutting children who come to see me. And it always has something to do with the computer, the Internet and the smartphone.”
Issues such as cyber-bullying are, of course, nothing new, and schools now all strive to develop robust policies to tackle them, but Lynn Evans’ target is both more precise and more general. She is pointing a finger of accusation at the smartphones – “pocket rockets” as she calls them – which are now routinely in the hands of over 80 per cent of secondary school age children. Their arrival has been, she notes, a key change since 2010.
“It’s a simplistic view, but I think it is the ubiquity of broadband and smartphones that has changed the pace and the power and the drama of mental illness in young people.”
With a smartphone – as opposed to an earlier generation of “brick” mobiles that could only be used to keep in touch with worried parents – youngsters can now, she says, “access the internet without adult supervision in parks, on street, wherever they are, and then they can go anywhere. So there are difficult chat rooms, self-harming websites, anorexia websites, pornography, and a whole invisible world of dark places. In real life, we travel with our children. When they are connected via their smartphone to the web, they usually travel alone”.
She quotes one website that has come up in conversations with youngsters in the consulting room. “I wouldn’t have known about it otherwise, but it is where men masturbate in real time while children as young as 12 watch them. So parents think their children are upstairs in their bedrooms with their friends having popcorn and no alcohol, yet this is the sort of thing they are watching. And as they watch, they are saying, ‘this is what sex is’. It is leaving them really distressed.”
Mums and dads who allow young teenagers to have smartphones – and she wouldn’t say yes until they were 14 – must also take a more active role in policing the use of them, she says, however unpopular it will make them with their offspring.