“Children and young people’s mental health has been declining throughout the past few decades with little being done to address this. The problems have not gone away but have only intensified under the more recent restrictions and lockdowns. The consensus is that children’s mental health is suffering and depression is increasing.” This is one of the conclusions drawn by UK based Sarah Foster, a play and creative art therapist, in her report entitled ‘The Impact on Mental Health of Children and Young People During and After the COVID-19 Pandemic’ published in July 2021. Although the study is based on the UK situation, I believe that it has universal relevance.
People’s lives and businesses have been disrupted by constant and unsettling changes and mandates. The scale and level of restrictive measures globally preventing families and people from leaving their homes for weeks, the physical distancing of people from each other and the periodic forced shutdown of indoor and outdoor activities has had devastating effects. Children and adults alike are feeling anxious, fragile and fragmented, disconnected from the workplace, colleagues, family, neighbours, peers, schools and education, clubs and communities and the environment. Another unintended consequence is that people are also feeling alienated from medical services and support if these are not Covid-19 related.
Studies carried out in the last 20 months have likened the effect on people’s mental health arising from the restrictive measures, the pervasive fear and the daily uncertainties, to the impact from traumatic life experiences, natural disasters or even terrorist attacks. These studies also conclude that this is likely to result in poor health later in life. Another 2020 study points out that social isolation, disconnection, sedentary behaviours and loneliness have been independently linked to premature death from stroke and cardiovascular disease, as well as altered behaviour of the immune system in relation to inflammation and antiviral response. Social isolation has also been linked to suicide risk and psychosis.
Health mandated lockdowns and quarantine periods and the ensuing social isolation have resulted in a decrease in outdoor activities and a corresponding overuse of electric and technological devices. These are adverse health changes.
We are social beings and the learning from, and recognition of, facial expressions is critically important to adults and children alike, firstly to learn communication, empathy and language skills and later in life to recognise and exercise these skills. Face masks, social restrictions and excessive screen time are known to impair cognitive and behavioural abilities.
The technological response to the global ecological devastation caused by humans finds resonance with a similar technological response to the current viral outbreak. This technological and digital response is problematic. The digital industry is a highly polluting one and the fact that it is being promoted as an environmentally-friendly solution is, to my mind, suspect to say the least. Additionally, the health mandates of the past 20 months have triggered what appears to be a well-rehearsed and ready-to-go digital response.
The tech industry’s message is one that encourages people to exchange their real-life experiences with virtual online experiences in the isolation of an indoor environment. This type of messaging is disingenuous as it ignores the substantial negative mental and physical health impacts of home confinement, smartphone and social media use and excessive screen time generally.
Adult’s, and in particular children’s, screen addiction is now being compared to alcohol or drug addiction. “The addictive appeal of technology, caused by the neurotransmitter dopamine ‘hit’ can limit the capacity to make healthy choices due to loss of the ability to decode and comprehend social interactions. Such behaviour by individuals inhibits social cohesion.”
The loss of social cohesion based on socially agreed norms brings forth the breakdown of society. All actions have consequences. Decisions should not be taken on a whim. The World Health Organisation has in 2017 listed Gaming Disorder in the International Classification of Diseases. I suspect that too few medical practitioners are aware of this disease or would even know how to address such an illness.
Overuse of screen time, gadgets and electronic games also affects the ability to control mood swings with a 2015 study concluding that children whose screen time is left unregulated by parents and schools are more likely to “struggle academically and socially”.
In the past two years the development of children’s social skills has been totally ignored. The learning of facial expressions related to communication, empathy, language, behavioural and cognitive skills are impeded by the mandatory use of face masks, social restrictions and excessive screen times. The prolonged use of digital technology is seen by Neurologist Manfred Spitzer as causing an imbalance leading to difficulty in concentration, short attention span, short term memory loss and emotional disturbances leading to depression.
Sarah Foster points out that parents more than ever during lockdowns (and quarantine periods) in confined spaces are having to manage their children’s schooling, their behaviours and their indoor entertainment. They are struggling to oversee and keep up appropriate bedtime and screen time boundaries. All of this while managing their own anxiety, worries and their own mental health.
Health rules that may apply to a particular segment of the adult population should not be automatically applied to children and young people. National health authorities should be cautious before unleashing United Nations WHO and EU guidelines on their country’s population, especially when these supranational bodies renounce any responsibility for any adverse effects arising from following their guidelines.
This article was published in the Times of Malta on the 29 January 2022
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