JULIE Lynn Evans has been a child psychotherapist in Britain 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 a practitioner and a writer drawing so many people to the door of her consulting rooms in west London.
“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 among youngsters.”
Official figures confirm the picture she paints, with emergency admissions to child psychiatric wards doubling in four years, and those young adults hospitalised for selfharm up by 70% 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 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 more than 80% 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.
“There are difficult chat rooms, self-harming websites, anorexia websites, pornography, and a whole invisible world of dark places.”
Mums and dads who allow young teenagers to have smartphones – and she wouldn’t say yes until they were 14 – must take a more active role in policing the use of them, she says, however unpopular it will make them with their offspring.
“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.
“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.
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.’
“We need that kind of discipline.”
Evans is keen to point out this isn’t happening to all children, and 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.
– The Telegraph