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Psychiatrist urges parents to avoid digital saturation of children

Parents should avoid saturating children in digital media like iPads and iPhones and encourage a ‘talk not tap’ culture at home, a leading psychiatrist has said.

Priory’s Dr Hayley van Zwanenberg said that while access to digital media was educationally helpful, and often encouraged by schools, excessive screen time was changing children’s emotional responses, while what they accessed on screen was frequently inappropriate or damaging.

The child and adolescent psychiatrist, based at Priory Hospital Woodbourne in Birmingham, said that some screen time was inevitable and enjoyable, but taken to excess, it contributed to health problems such as obesity, but left children frequently exposed to the dangers of cyberbullying.

She added: “Important emotional skills too are at risk of being lost as children lose the ability to socialise in person, and begin to think that they can exercise control at the tap of a key, and receive instant gratification in all things.

“They lose the ability to read emotions and to empathise. It’s that lack of empathy that can sometimes result in cyberbullying.”

She went on: “Children go to school hunched over their phones and leave at the end of the day transfixed by them and have less and less real knowledge of their friends except the information about them which they have picked up through social media.”

In some cases, digital media has become so much a part of people's lives that youngsters can learn someone's life story just by checking their ‘page’.

Dr van Zwanenberg added: “Apps and computer games have become the digital nannies of our age. Parents need to make choices - say no to devices at dinner and spend more time talking. The trouble is that nowadays children live in the digital world as much as they live in the real one, whether they are chatting to their friends on FaceTime or glued to Instagram, Snapchat or WhatsApp."

It is estimated that the average smartphone user checks his or her phone 221 times a day, and youngsters, bombarded with texts and emails, are constantly responding to electronic messages and digital ‘noise’.

Some studies suggest that digital technology is even resulting in brain ‘rewiring’ and that while children are becoming better at scanning information, they are less imaginative and less focused, and their writing skills are falling behind, while their vocabulary is being limited.

An article in Harvard Magazine, “Is There an App for That?”, presented the research of two education professors who studied how technology affects the brains of young people.

While abilities in graphic art had improved, creative writing ability had diminished. Young people were more likely to “shy away from questions, whether large or small, when there’s no ‘app for that’,” they said.

They also noticed signs of increasing social isolation. While social digital media seems to increase friendships, often the connections are very shallow.

Dr Niall Campbell of Priory Hospital Roehampton said he was particularly concerned about young people’s exposure to cyberbullying via digital media because adolescents, particularly girls, “live on their phones”.

Cyberbullying affected many schoolgirls on a daily basis, he said, from the posting of hurtful or threatening messages on social networking sites, to girls pretending to be someone else online to hurt another female pupil, or unflattering pictures of a girl being circulated through phones or the internet.

Weight was often a key issue, with girls contrasted in a vicious way to ultra-slim models, to devastating effect.

Boys tended to bully in more physical ways while girls were more inclined to use more secretive tactics, and revert to a computer or phone, he said.

“We have to remember that girls are often addicted to their ‘virtual’ friendship networks.

“The drip-drip effect of cyberbullying can be very damaging to impressionable and emotionally insecure adolescents. If the bullying is centred on appearance, and girls believe what they read, it can easily lead to eating disorders and cause severe anxiety, depression, and even suicide.”

He said that once disparaging pictures were circulated on the internet, they may never disappear, resurfacing to renew the pain of cyberbullying.

“Girls who suffer bullying have an increased risk of being more withdrawn, staying off school and seeing their academic performance nosedive, having nightmares, and wanting to self-harm.

"If a victim is given help early, the risk of long-term effects will reduce. Without this, there is a distinct possibility that some effects will last into adulthood - low self-esteem, trust issues, increased depressive symptoms, feelings of anger and bitterness, and unhealthy and self-destructive behaviours.”

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