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Ian Birrell

  • Award-winning columnist and foreign reporter. Contributing editor of The Mail on Sunday and weekly columnist in the 'i' paper. Writes regularly for many other papers, platforms and magazines. Frequent broadcaster and speaker at events. Co-founder wth Damon Albarn of the Africa Express music project and executive producer of 4 albums...Read more
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Are smart phones feeding an epidemic of despair?

Published by The i paper (23rd October, 2017)

There are few more obvious cries for help than self-harm. The idea of slashing your arm with a razor blade or slicing your leg with scissors to release feelings of anger, pain and desolation seems perverse. Yet for more than a century there have been clinical reports of people mutilating themselves when emotions or stress become overwhelming. Now the number of British teenagers engaged in such desperate actions is rocketing.

The latest alarming evidence on this epidemic of youthful despair came last week in the British Medical Journal. A study based on 674 GP practices found girls aged between 10 and 19 three times more likely to self-harm than boys – and incidences among girls aged 13 to 16 increasing more than two-thirds over three years. This is shocking and highly significant, especially when such people are far more likely to later kill themselves or die from substance abuse.

Yet this staggering finding caused few ripples. Another recent report in Wales found children as young as six logged as self-harming in schools. One council reported referrals to social services rising six-fold in three years. Psychologists often have horrific cases of self-cutting. Many parents of teenage children have their own tales of troubled kids, even from secure and loving backgrounds.

There are many causes for this mental health crisis. Yet how much damage is caused by that smartphone revolution unleashed by Steve Jobs a decade ago with his prophetic words that sometimes ‘a revolutionary product comes along that changes everything’? As an optimist I see this device as amazing for humanity, marvelling at its disruptive global impact. Yet we cannot ignore the dark side of the digital world.

Certainly I am enslaved by the mini-computer in my pocket. Intuitively it feels wrong to spend so much time staring at its small screen, to be so distracted by emails and diverted by Twitter. Now there is alarming evidence the machines may be having a malign influence on the iGeneration – those born after the internet, growing up with smartphones in hands and starting on social media well before secondary school.

Psychologists say the prevalence of pornography is having profound influence on young people, even pre-pubescent primary school pupils. Now comes evidence this generation is seeing friends less, dating less, sleeping less, going out less than previous ones – and that those glued most firmly to their phones are more likely to suffer mental health issues and even, in the worst cases, to kill themselves.

These findings come from American psychologist Jean Twenge in her new book, previewed in a provocative magazine article. She has been studying generational attitudes for 25 years, poring over data going back almost a century. ‘Around 2012 I noticed abrupt shifts in teen behaviours and emotional states,’ she writes. ‘I had never seen anything like it.’ That date was when the proportion of Americans with a smartphone surpassed half the population. Britain soon followed suit.

Her article is littered with alarming statistics. I found one very stark: the number of teenagers getting together with friends fell more than 40 per cent over the first 15 years of this century. At that age, I tried desperately to escape limits on my liberty. Yet in the United States 18-year-olds now go out less often than 13-year-olds went out as recently as 2009. So teens are less likely to be hanging out, those moments of forging friendships and exploring relationships. Instead, they are online.

Studies indicate teenagers spending most time on screens and social media are more likely to be unhappy than those playing sport, participating in social activities or even doing homework. And when loafing around or at parties, the iGeneration routinely shares activities on social media. Yet this fuels judgement and insecurities of those not invited, with feelings of insecurity and loneliness hitting all-time highs.

Girls, traditionally using social media more than boys, are most likely to suffer such fears in a sexist society that places such store on female looks. Is this linked to these latest self-harm figures? Or to a recent government study that found one in three teenage girls suffer anxiety or depression? Or to another finding one in four girls clinically depressed by age 14? Twenge also points to sharp rise in sleep-deprived teenagers failing to get seven hours of rest a night – especially heavy users of computers and smartphones – let alone the nine recommended by experts.

It is not all bad news. Since teenagers meet each other less often they take fewer drugs, drink less alcohol and start having sex later, aiding the decline in teenage pregnancy rates. They are also highly tolerant. But suicide rates for young people have risen: to a 14-year high for British children and teenagers, and to highest level since records begun among students.

These findings, although often based on correlation not firm proof, should provoke fierce debate. The internet age remains in its infancy, yet this is the first generation fully raised in a digital environment. Nor should we ignore the corrosive impact of parents plugging infants into iPads from an early age, then being endlessly distracted themselves from their offspring by Facebook and suchlike.

There is always alarmist fear of new technology. We must embrace the brave new world unfurling before our eyes with amazing rapidity since it brings many benefits. Yet this does not mean we should not question if the iGeneration is alerting us to the consequences of mass flight into a virtual world, symbolised by those bloodied arms and scarred legs of teenage girls.

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