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.
“I think children should have privacy within their own rooms and in their diaries, and I think they should have the Internet, but I don’t think they should have both, certainly not until they have proved they are completely safe and reliable. So, check their browser history, look at their Facebook, Instagram, and then discuss it with them.
“When they are 15, you don’t, for example, let them go to pub, or stay out in the local park at four in morning, yet they’ll get into much less trouble physically there than they will on their smartphones on the internet. I’m not talking about paedophiles preying on them. I’m talking about anorexia sites and sites where they will be bullied.”
That is where the damage is being done to their mental health, she argues. Harmful, too, is the sheer length of exposure to the virtual world via their smartphones that youngsters have now. Her strong advice to parents is to limit access. “Use it like parents used to use TV with their children. ‘You can watch this but you can’t watch that’, and there’s a watershed. We need that kind of discipline.”
How about just banning it altogether? “I believe that parents who don’t allow the Internet can cause as much damaged as parents who allow too much. Their children are not able to work and play and be with the rest of the children in the playground. It’s has to be about balance, not banning.”
Living so much in a virtual world has other negative consequences, she suggests. It gives young users no time to reflect or learn about the consequences of their actions. “So if you are having a WhatsApp chat with your friends, and it all goes very wrong, you can say to them, ‘I wish you were dead’. Now perfectly nice children find themselves saying, ‘I wish you were dead,’ because they haven’t got time to reflect, and then their words go everywhere. Kindness, compassion, ethics, it’s all out of the window when you are in this instantaneous gossip world with no time to think, and no time to learn about having relationships.”
Parents also need to think about what example they set their children by their own attachment to their smartphones. “We know all about the importance of childhood attachment and good healthy childhood relationships with parents. Yet, if you look in the local park, you see children at a very early age not getting the tender, intense love they used to because their parents are always on their smartphones. Put them down, and be with your kids from day one. They’re not getting what they need from us to build up their core sense of self and that can create the problems I see down the line.”
Julie Lynn Evans is, in one way, a reluctant campaigner. She is keen to point out that this isn’t happening to all children, and that there are other potential causes for the current crisis – “results-driven school programmes”, busy parents and the recession are three she quotes, not to mention “organic” mental health such as schizophrenia.
And, she says, she has enough on her plate, dealing daily with the current crisis in adolescent mental health, without getting drawn into a broader argument about how to tackle its root causes. Indeed, she confesses that two weeks ago she was so exhausted that she even contemplated giving up work altogether.
“I was dealing with a young boy who had just jumped out of a car and run into oncoming traffic. Two psychiatrists and I were tearing our hair out trying to find a safe place to put him. We tried for four hours to find him a hospital bed, and there was nowhere for him no hospital bed available. He ended up going went home and we put in nurses 24 hours a day, but not a lot of people are going to be able to do that. At the end of it, I was so tired I thought I can’t go on”.
What makes her continue, though, in a system that even Normal Lamb has called “broken”, is that what she is witnessing frightens her. And she is speaking out because she believes the problem can be fixed.
She is emphatically not anti-internet, but rather anti- the negative side effects of it on our young. “It is battering our children’s brains. They have no times for the goodies in life – kindness, acceptance, conversation, face-to-face, nature, nurture. They need to find a sense of purpose by connecting with other people, not being on the Internet all the time.”
If parents and schools engage with it openly and together, this can be tackled, she urges. “If we can grab what’s going on by the horns, and do something about it, then I am optimistic. I’m not optimistic, though, if we just say it’s the government ‘s fault and we’ve got to have more money.”
If you are affected by any of the issues discussed in this interview, contact YoungMinds on 0808 802 5544 or Saneline on 08457 678 000