What is wrong with our children today? A recent report by the Children’s Commissioner found the number of young children seeing psychiatrists has risen by a third amid what was described as an “epidemic of anxiety”. This followed a study published in October in the BMJ that found self-harm among young teenage girls had risen by nearly 70 per cent between 2011 and 2014. On Monday, Stephen Fry described his shock at learning of a self-harm epidemic among some of the most privileged children in the UK in some of Britain’s top private schools.
We can say, but look, they've got everything... they've got iPhones, they've got this, they've got that. Clearly... that can't be enough
The figures are indeed shocking, but what is driving this wave of unhappiness? Addressing the issue during a recording of Bryony Gordon’s pod cast Mad World, Stephen Fry said: "We can say, but look, they've got everything they've got iPhones, they've got this, they've got that. Clearly, we know that can't be enough. There is something missing. How do we address it?"
Having worked for more than 40 years in child psychiatry, Dr Mike Shooter has more insight than most. The former president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, whose memoir Growing Pains is published today, spent most of his career in the Welsh Valleys but has a broad perspective on what may be ‘missing’ exactly. But first I want to know, is anxiety really as pervasive a problem as recent figures are suggesting, or are people just more comfortable about talking about it?
“I’m pretty sure it has [increased],” he says. But, then adds: “I think we recognise it more than we used to. We’re seeing a lot of kids who’ve got lower levels of anxiety than a formal psychiatric diagnosis and they should be helped and can be helped.”
Many point to the increased use of social media as fuelling a generation’s unhappiness, but while Shooter says it is certainly part of the problem, he suggests it is not the only factor. “Social media is a wonderful channel for kids with ghastly anxiety, sitting up in their bedrooms in the loneliness of a night, [messaging] people every hour to see if somebody likes them or doesn’t like them. They have to have their private world, that’s what adolescence is about.”
And if a parent is worried about overuse and it having a negative effect?
“Do something,” urges Dr Shooter. “Quite a lot of the parents I see of kids in this situation, with horrendous anxiety and self-harming, they’re paralysed. They don’t know whether to say anything or not say anything, to intrude or not intrude, and the answer is always to do something: talk about it, learn about it, look what your kid is doing. If necessary, take the equipment out of the bedroom so they’re not doing it every night, and show you’re doing it because you care.”
While teenagers must be allowed to take risks in order to develop into healthy adults, setting boundaries is just as important with this age group as it is with toddlers, he argues.
“Adolescents have developed all sorts of cognitive and social abilities and they want to explore the world and who they are as a person,” he says. “But we know as parents there need to be some boundaries or they’ll behave in ever more dangerous ways until they’ve found the boundaries. And what I think anxious kids who are self-harming as a result of all that social media exposure are saying is ‘help me. It’s out of my control.’ For heaven’s sake, parent, don’t be frightened of intruding. If your kid is pale and tired and miserable then they’re asking for your help.”
Anxious kids who are self-harming as a result of all that social media exposure are saying ‘help me. It’s out of my control.’ For heaven’s sake, parent, don’t be frightened of intruding
But social media is not the only issue affecting young people. In considering the causes of what he calls “a genuine increase in unhappiness levels among children,” Dr Shooter casts his net more widely. “It’s a ferociously competitive society that we live in and we’re always failing kids at something,” he says. “We should be looking at different [educational] models where kids go into academia later in life, where they begin with cooperative play with other kids but they don’t take this mountain of homework back with them in addition to all the other stuff they’ve had to do during the day; where we don’t test them at every available opportunity. It’s very anxiety-provoking.”
On the other hand, I suggest, aren’t today’s children - at least those from middle-class families - relatively comfortable and secure? After all, they are not living through war, as their great-grandparents did.
“Quite often you find that in circumstances of war or disaster, anxiety and depression levels go down and when peace comes they go up,” notes Dr Shooter. “I think it’s something about community spirit, togetherness and purpose - something that’s bigger than them and individual struggle.”
So young people today are perhaps lacking meaning; a sense of connection with and belonging to the world?
Quite often you find that in war or disaster, anxiety and depression levels go down and when peace comes they go up. I think it’s something about community spirit, togetherness and purpose
“Community has broken down,” agrees Dr Shooter. “It’s right across cultures and right across class. You see the same levels of loneliness, unhappiness, anxiety and depression in children in middle-class gated communities [as you do in economically deprived households]. Kids spend more time talking to each other on their phone and less and less time doing things together.”
The “rituals of togetherness and family life” are, he says, are also melting away. One in five families only sit down to eat a meal together once or twice a week, a survey found in 2013. These rituals, Dr Shooter believes, make a difference, not least as they provide an opportunity for families to talk to each other.
Is talking sometimes the problem, though? We have talked more than ever about mental health in recent years, a period that has coincided with an apparent explosion in the incidence of mental health problems. Is this a coincidence, a cause or effect? But Dr Shooter is firm on this point: discussing these issues does not increase their prevalence.
“There used to be a feeling in schools that you mustn’t talk about drugs or sex because if you talk about it you’ll spread it, and sometimes there’s the same feeling about mental health issues. That’s really not true. We must talk about it,” he says.
Indeed, if there’s any message of hope to take away from our discussion, it is surely that talking does help. But there’s another message too for parents - one that applies no matter what problems our children face.
“If you’ve got kids you’ve got to spend time with them and do things with them. You need positive time together,” he says. “Regretfully, fewer and fewer parents have that. And that, I think, is one of the things that lies behind the rise in anxiety in kids today.”