Sunday 17 November 2019

Are smartphones destroying a generation? How iGen could be facing a crisis in teenage mental health

Thousands of children went back to school this week with a mobile phone. At the same time, we are facing into a crisis in teenage mental health. Is there a link?

Clamping down: Andrea Mara with her children Elissa (9) Nia (8) and Matthew (5). Photo: Mark Condren
Clamping down: Andrea Mara with her children Elissa (9) Nia (8) and Matthew (5). Photo: Mark Condren
Jane Hayes Nally
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

Dr Harry Barry is concerned that children using phones are now only two clicks away from an Islamic State beheading or a clip of violent porn.

Thousands of kids returned to school this week with a shiny new phone in their pocket. After months of pleading, their parents may have finally given in and handed them latest iPhone or Android device, after hearing the refrain: "All my friends have one."

By the time they are in sixth class in primary school, around the age of 12, nine out of ten of Irish pupils will already have a smartphone, according to the Education Research Centre.

What is more striking is how many children at a much younger age now own phones with full internet access.

One in three children in second class, commonly aged seven or eight, have a phone.

The genie has been well and truly let out of the bottle, but are we fully aware of what the effects on this generation will be?

Dr Barry, a therapist and co-author of the bestselling book Flagging the Screenager, is worried about the impact of the ubiquitous smartphone on children.

"In my work I am seeing an epidemic of anxiety among teenagers, and I believe that smartphones have been a game changer.

Jane Hayes Nally
Jane Hayes Nally

"Giving smartphones to kids has been a big social experiment, and we may not know for years what the effect will be."

The first generation of young internet users, the much-derided millennials, spent much of their years of development with the internet. And it is true that they haven't turned out to be a generation of screen-addled sex-crazed psychopaths.

But the internet of their childhood was a different medium commonly encountered through a bulky desktop in the living room corner.

Apocalyptic picture

Children went online often with the prying eyes of parents close by. And, unlike a phone, you could not take a desktop to bed, on to a bus or into the playground,

According to the American psychologist Professor Jean Twenge, the experience of the generation that has followed the millennials has been radically different.

In a recent article in Atlantic magazine, Prof Twenge has painted an almost apocalyptic picture of the effects on children and teenagers posing the question - "Have smartphones destroyed a generation?"

She says the iGen that has grown up with smartphones is physically safer than teens have ever been.

They have less casual sex, are less likely to get into a car accident, and tend to drink less.

But psychologically, they are much more vulnerable than their predecessors, the professor claims. She says rates of teen depression and suicide in the US have soared in recent years.

"It's not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental health crisis in decades. Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones," says Prof Twenge.

The psychologist warns that increased screentime anytime, anyplace, anywhere is linked with growing isolation and depression. She says teens who spend three hours a day or more on electronic devices are 35pc more likely to have a risk factor for suicide. So, are these trends replicated in Ireland, where young teenagers are also wedded to smartphones?

If suicide is seen as the ultimate barometer of mental health, the evidence that phones have created a blighted generation is not compelling.

Ireland has the fourth highest suicide rate among 15 to 19-year-old in EU/OECD countries.

But the number of young people (aged 15 to 24) who take their own lives has actually dropped in Ireland over the past decade - from 93 in 2006 to 46 last year.

Nevertheless, Dr Harry Barry believes there has been a surge in anxiety among teenagers, which he links to smartphones.

"I think we may only see the full mental health effect of this in 10 years' time."


Dr Barry says he had treated a 13-year-old girl who had attempted suicide.

"She had been continuously cyberbullied on her mobile phone, particularly late at night.

"She was getting awful messages for three months. When I asked her why she didn't tell her mother, she said she didn't want to upset her, and yet she was prepared to attempt to suicide."

A YouGov survey found that one in four teenagers in Ireland has suffered from cyberbullying.

Sligo secondary teacher Luke Saunders says he does not believe prohibition of phones is feasible in this day and age, the teacher says they present the most difficult challenges of our era for schools.

Saunders, who runs the website, says his site ran a survey earlier this year showing that over half of all students check their phones in class regularly. "They are a constant source of distraction," says the teacher.

So can ownership of a mobile phone among younger pupils affect academic performance?

A comprehensive study of primary school children in Ireland indicates that if a child owns a phone by second class (aged seven or eight), their maths and reading scores are likely to be significantly lower. By sixth class, however, where more than 90pc have mobiles, phone ownership was not a factor in academic performance.

The real concern for parents is what their kids are actually looking at online, and who they are contacting.

Cliona Curley of CyberSafeIreland, an organisation that focuses on internet safety for 9-13 year-old, says: "The problem is everything you didn't want your kids to see is available in one click.

"We would be concerned about pro-anorexia sites and sites glorifying self-harming. If a child is vulnerable, this kind of material could influence them."

Online pornography also remains a major concern for parents, according to Curley. She points to a recent study in Britain by the NSPCC showing that 28pc of 11-12 year-old have already viewed online porn. The report found that youngsters were more likely to come across porn accidentally, for example via a pop-up ad, than to seek it out.

One 11-year-old girl told the NSPCC researchers about her experience of porn: "I didn't like it because it came on by accident and I don't want my parents to find out and the man looked like he was hurting her. He was holding her down and she was screaming and swearing."

A 13-year-old girl said: "It can make a boy not look for love, just look for sex, and it can pressure us girls to act and look and behave in a certain way before we might be ready for it."

In the face of these intrusions into childhood, the Fine Gael TD Jim Daly recently tried to introduce legislation banning the sale of mobile phones to under-14s, and even fining parents for giving their kids unrestricted access..

After talking to thousands of parents and children, Cliona Curley believes blanket prohibition does not work once children reach a certain age.

"The most important thing for parents is to make themselves part of the online lives of their children. They should know that they are doing online and who they are talking to. They should be having constant conversation about what they come across."

Exposure to the unreality of online pornography can be counteracted with discussions about true intimacy and relationships. Many parents don't realise that many devices now have sophisticated parental controls that restrict certain sites.

The child psychotherapist Colman Noctor believes all these controls should be used, but parents should bear one thing in mind: "There's no parenting app that will replace actual parenting."

So what is an appropriate age to give your child a phone? While most parents have handed over the keys to the mobile online world by the time their kids have reached 12, Noctor believes the right age depends on the child.

"There are some 11-year-olds who are well able to manage it and understand it. At the same time I would have grave concerns about the ability of some 17-year-olds to engage with the online world. They may over-disclose and be naïve about the digital footprint they are leaving."

The psychotherapist advises parents to start with a high level of supervision, and gradually loosen the controls as children show themselves to be capable of navigating the internet.

Noctor is concerned that 24-hour access to phones is affecting the sleep of youngsters. He recently gave a talk at a primary school, where 200 children from the age of seven upwards were in a WhatsApp group. They were waking to up to 80 messages on their phone every day.

Another major concern for those who work in the area of mental health is the culture of social comparison that constant exposure to social media creates.

A decade ago, teenagers may not have known that a group of their classmates was out enjoying themselves. But now it is all documented and they feel the Fomo (fear of missing out).

Psychologist Allison Keating says: "There is a huge gap between the public persona shown on social media of having a good time and the reality of children being awkward in a normal way.

"At a young age, children are being modelled to market themselves as a product - and that creates depression and anxiety."

It remains to be seen whether the smartphone has really created a blighted generation, or whether parents and children will adapt to latest technological wave, as they always have done in the past. While she believes parents should embrace technology, Cliona Curley believes parents should be cautious with smartphones.

"They wouldn't open the front door of their house and allow their kids to roam across a main road. So they shouldn't allow them to roam freely online where they are potentially at risk."


My best bet is to build up  trust and communication

Andrea Mara: Dublin-based blogger and mother of three

The one thing I've learned about parenting is that every time I make a ­statement of intent, it comes back to bite me. Before I had kids, I knew exactly what kind of parent I would be - I wouldn't use soothers, I'd never bribe them with treats, and there was no way I was going to use TV as a babysitter. Then I actually had children, and realised that sometimes, the only things ­keeping me sane at the end of a long day were the soother, the treat, and the blessed TV ­babysitter.

So, much as I'm tempted to declare that none of my children will have phones before secondary school, I'm wary of making bald statements. Right now they're five, eight, and almost 10, and the only certainty is that none of them needs a smartphone yet.

As it happens, the almost 10-year-old started negotiations this week, asking if she could have a phone for her 12th birthday. I said no, not until secondary school. But realistically, if half way through sixth class, she's the last unplugged child, I may cave. And perhaps it's not so much about the phone, but the usage of the phone.

As a wise person once said to me, we are the first generation who can remember a time before the internet, and our children are the first generation who have never known life without the internet.

Social media isn't going away, and blanket bans won't work - one way or another, my daughter will eventually step on to that merry-go-round. So my best bet is to build up trust and communication, and to be there waiting when she arrives, so that I can help her navigate.

I need to be familiar with each app she uses. I need to know how to find privacy settings. I need her to tell me what's going on in her online world - and that's a conversation we've started before she gets there at all. So although she has no phone yet, I tell her this:

* Never share personal details with strangers, including people who, after a while, don't seem like strangers. Know that what you post online is forever, and don't share anything you wouldn't like me, your dad, or your teacher to see.

* Be aware of social media etiquette, and look out for cyberbullying. Watch out for trolls, and don't become a troll.

* Leave your phone downstairs at night, and accept that I will have access to all your accounts, at least at first. Tell me what's happening online - I'm here to help. And above all, don't let it suck you in and take over your life.

That last one may prove trickiest of all - I say that as a card-carrying Facebook, Twitter and Instagram addict - so I'm preparing the groundwork on that front, too. We have a strict no-phones-at-dinner rule, and I hope that by the time the kids are online, that will be ingrained. When they ask a difficult question, I resist turning automatically to Google (at least at first). And when I do go online while the kids are around, I tell them what I'm doing - so that I avoid getting lost in mindless scrolling while they're trying to get my attention.

I don't always succeed, but the spectre of a future role reversal keeps me trying.

Parents need to set good example

Jane Hayes Nally

Jane Hayes Nally (18): Student at Middleton College, Honorary president of the Irish Secondary Students Union

For me the solution doesn't lie in 'switching off'. The internet offers a brilliant advantage for this generation and we should make use of it, because it's here to stay.

I think we need to be a less self-indulgent, and more restrained with our screen time.

Parents can help by setting a good example of moderation and also ensuring that young people feel comfortable confiding in them.

It comes as no surprise to me if the rate of depressive symptoms in girls has risen dramatically.

There are aspects of social media - such as the need for affirmation amongst peers, the reliance some girls have towards their phones, and the fact that social media is predominantly a visual platform - which contribute to this. In so many cases, school breaks involve checking Instagram and messenger apps, and in the evenings there is mindless scrolling of Facebook timelines.

I find that it does affect sleep adversely, and I know all of my peers would agree with me.

Social media for lots of second-level students is an extension of their personality. It should more or less be accepted - it's another social profile except it's online.

We just need to keep in mind that this social profile is broadcast to the rest of the world.

Indo Review

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