One of the most hotly debated topics by participants who attend the Foundation Series Workshops is the premise that children are not born mentally ill, but rather that society makes them that way through abuse or neglect. Failure of researchers to discover any physiological or genetic cause for mental illness resulted in the American Psychiatric Association, the National Institutes of Mental Health, and the DSM-5 to redirect mental health research away from nature toward nurture, or environmental influences (see January 2014 Newsletter commentary by Colin A. Ross Biology and Genetics in DSM-5). As a result of this recent shift in focus of mental health research, primary attachment between parent and child is receiving more and more attention, as attachment is an important determinant for child mental health and wellbeing. An all too common outcome associated with failure of primary attachment, is a diversity of challenging and problematic child behaviors. Sad, mad, and bad, it’s starting to look like maybe these one in six Canadian children with a diagnosed mental illness really are not “sick” after all. As parents (and teachers) attach more and more to technology, they detach from children, further exacerbating already existing attachment disorders, and propelling children into technology addictions at an alarming rate. This article by pediatric occupational therapist Cris Rowan explores the origins of child mental illness, and directs child health and education teams away from the ‘old school’ child mental illness model, toward more healthy, environmentally driven strategies that build child and family capacity, resiliency, and wellness.
As with any complex problem, the solution is never easy, nor is it ever just one problem with one quick fix. Overuse of technology has caused significant detrimental impact in child physical, social, and academic domains, and is a major contributor to the recent rise in child mental health disorders, in particular anxiety, depression and attention deficit. Child mental illness has many key players, and fortunately this means many people to help out with identifying causal factors for sad, mad, and bad children, and determining multiple solutions. When addressing improving child mental and physical health, there are six major groups who most influence a child’s life: parents, educators, health providers, government, researchers, and corporations – technology and pharmaceutical. The remainder of this article will highlight proposed initiatives in these six sectors to improve child physical and mental health, behaviour, socialization and ability to learn.
The primary people regarding child mental health and illness are of course the child’s parents and/or caregivers, as they spend the majority of time with the child. One fact often missed is that the sad, mad or bad child is rarely the person with the problem, generally the whole family needs help. Consequently, identifying family issues that affect child behaviour require trained health and education teams to do home visits. In the home, therapists can not only more easily uncover salient issues impacting child behaviour, but also more effectively treat the whole family. Unfortunately, home visits are a rarity these days, and working parents and busy lifestyles limit offering service in home environments. So how can we reach parents to provide information, as well as assess their relationship with their child, if we can’t get into the home? Educational workshops tend to attract some parents, as do health fairs, especially if the event offers door prizes or raffles. Flyers rarely get read, as do school newsletters. Educating children and youth regarding detrimental impact of technology in school-based media literacy programs effectively offers essential information to one key player, who might bring it home to their family. Regardless of the avenue of education, in this day and age of problematic child behaviours, the health and educational professionals will need to assess and treat the whole family.
Teachers are the second most important persons in a child’s life, as they may actually spend more time with a child than the parents. When attachment has failed between parent and child, the teacher can become a primary attachment figure, and hence may be the only adult in the child’s life who can role model functional attachment and relationships. Teachers who heavily rely on technology as a primary teaching tool, are rarely emotionally present for their students, and as a result, the children connect to technology to fulfill their attachment needs. Eye contact, non-judgemental listening, and realistic expectations are effective attachment techniques that when used by a teacher, can mean a world of difference to detached and neglected children. Teacher adherence to applying the four critical factors for optimizing child development and learning daily, will not only enhance literacy, but also improve problematic behavior. Movement, touch, human connection, and nature can be achieved through access to playgrounds, gyms, and sensory-motor enriched classrooms.
In my experience as a pediatric occupational therapist who works in daycare/preschool, school, home, and clinic settings, rarely if ever do health professionals assess and provide intervention for attachment disorders, nor do they screen for technology usage. Yet, the health professional is a major team player when attaining a mental illness diagnosis and psychotropic medication for problematic children. When addressing children who are sad, mad, or bad with problematic behaviors, Gabor Mate said “See their pain, listen to their story”, instead of reaching for the quick fix by pulling out a prescription pad. Supporting “One Nation under Therapy” initiatives might secure jobs for all health professionals in the future, but this is not a sustainable model, nor will it ensure sustainable futures for children. Health professionals have so much more to offer children than diagnosis and drugs. It’s time to slow down, look, and listen to children, before it’s too late. Providing all children and their families with a technology screen will secure important information regarding behaviors associated with technology overuse. Following technology screening with education, as well as effective tools and strategies to reduce family use of technology is imperative. Parents simply cannot do what they’vot been taught.
Having met with policy makers in three different BC Ministries regarding concerns associated with child technology overuse, I cannot understand why they have failed to act to protect our children. Video game production companies continue to produce games that have proven immensely harmful to children, and Fisher Price continues to make technology mounted devices for babies and toddlers (iPoddy, iCar Seat, iTeething Ring). Production of baby TV and baby Apps continue to soar, as does pornography accessed by the very young. As the pharmaceutical industry increases marketing strategies targeting child behaviors, our children grow more obese, developmentally delayed, aggressive, depressed, anxious, attention deficit, and learning disabled. Mandated technology product risk warnings, regulated video gaming and pharmaceutical industries, and public education must begin immediately if we are to create sustainable futures for our children.
As research mounts regarding detrimental impact of technology on child development and learning, why is this information not being assimilated and acted on by parents, health providers, and government? For the past five years the Zone’in Child Development Newsletter has distributed a monthly newsletter to a database of 20,000 health and education professionals, collated research in the area of impact of technology on children. Could not child development and learning researchers do the same initiative, and coordinate their efforts with media outlets, for release of evidence based, simple to read, factual research? Through the Foundation Series Workshops I’ve had the opportunity to speak with thousands of parents, health and education professionals who all state “If I’d only known sooner” when presented with research facts. With sufficient evidence to support numerous initiatives designed to reduce the use of technology by children, it is the responsibility of researchers to educate government and media regarding the perils of technology overuse, and make sufficient guidelines to regulate both the video gaming and pharmaceutical industries. How many children need to die of obesity, suicide, and violence before these guidelines are initiated?
Video Game and Pharmaceutical Industries
Class action lawsuits against both the video game and pharmaceutical industries have begun, and will continue to escalate, quite similar to Tabaco litigation which is ongoing today. When both these industries are quite aware of the damage their products are causing to children, how long can they continue to pull the wool over their own eyes and act as if they have no part in the ongoing degradation of 21st century children and their families? The misdirected blame that technology overuse by children is the parent’s responsibility, just doesn’t make sense when parents themselves are demonstrating significant addictions and problematic technology overuse. With Grand Theft Auto V added torture to its list of rape, murder, gross porn, and mutilation, with the full knowledge that very young children are exposed to these games, they crossed a line that is beyond “freedom of expression”. When Iceland, Scotland, and the UK have acted to ban internet pornography because little children are acting out sexually violent acts on other little children, in North America industry gets ever more illicit. When the UK and Australia are banning the use of psychotropic medication with children, North America distributes 95% of the world’s stimulant medication. This flagrant abuse of children by the video game and pharmaceutical industries has got to stop.
In the realm of ensuring sustainable futures for our children, everyone has a role to play. I encourage all those interested to make a commitment to the concept of managing balance between child technology use and healthy activities. Termed Balanced Technology Management (BTM), formation of BTM teams comprised of like-minded individuals from each of the six aforementioned sectors will launch forward life sustaining initiatives for both children and families. We can do this!
Sad, Mad and Bad was written by pediatric occupational therapist, biologist, and author Cris Rowan, CEO of Zone’in Programs Inc. www.zonein.ca. Formulate a BTM Team and work toward sustainable futures for children in your community now! Please follow link to BTM Forum page for more information.