Children aren’t Born with Mental Illness – We make them that way

Exploring ten myths and facts regarding child mental illness origins and treatment

Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, research studies documented an alarming rise in child and youth mental illness. The long-term effects of imposed isolation of families and removal of family support networks are largely unknown, but early reports during the Covid-19 pandemic indicate an alarming escalation in child/youth mental illness. Historically, empirical evidence regarding the origins of psychiatric disorders has taken a back seat to industry-driven pharmaceutical studies e.g. the cure preceded the cause, with an alarming rise in use of psychotropic medications for children with problematic behaviors. Presently we are witness to an escalation in the use of screen-based devices (in homes and schools) with consequences threatening both their physical and mental health. Children are increasingly sedentary, isolated, overstimulated and often neglected resulting in problematic behaviors which again, can present as mental illness. A lack of pragmatic and thorough research surrounding mental illness has significantly muddied the waters, often confusing and further misdirecting child mental illness diagnosis and treatment. As mental illness soars in children and youth, the salient question needing an answer is “What are ALL the factors contributing to child mental illness?” This article explores common myths and known (but often understated) facts regarding mental illness, and could assist parents, health and education professionals in preparation for the upcoming onslaught of child and youth mental illness.

  1. Genetic

While heavily funded and pervasively researched, to date there are no identified genes for mental illness, but rather what are termed “candidate genes” or genes thought to be implicated in different mental health disorders. While ‘genetic predisposition’ is a term still widely referenced by health professionals, it is often confused with the term ‘familial’ or ‘runs in the family’. An interesting area of study is in the field of epigenetics where environmental factors or normal developmental changes affect gene activity and expression. Epigenetic theory precludes finding “the gene” for mental illness, as human genes apparently can change to some degree in relation to their environment. “The roles of the environment and learning behavior in the ultimate expression of genetically predisposed individuals are, however, undisputed” (encyclopedia.com). While it is likely that genetics plays a role in mental illness, funnelling the majority of research funding toward this area is unwise.

  1. Familial

Also undisputed in the research literature is mental illness in the surrounding family and subsequent impact on the mental health of its progeny. Children of parents with mental illness have much higher incidence rates of mental illness than children of healthy parents. Children growing up in a household with parents or siblings who have psychiatric disorders has significant negative impact on attachment formation between parent and child (see 6. Attachment). Parents with mental illness may have been exposed themselves to abuse, neglect or trauma. You can’t do what you don’t know, and parents who have not known functional parenting require support and guidance. Parents with dysfunctional social and emotional modelling can introduce other destructive variables such as unpredictability and stress for the child, increasing risk of child mental illness. Including families in health and education team meetings is essential for achieving best outcomes for children with difficult behaviors.

  1. Behavioural

As much as parents and educators would like to believe, normal childhood and child problematic behavior is not a diagnosis. When children are neglected, abused or exposed to trauma, their behavior is a mirror to the inner pain and struggle they are experiencing. Problematic behavior is a mode of communication, and if we don’t listen, the behavior escalates. As a pediatric Occupational Therapist, I am frequently referred to what I term the “sad/mad/bad” children who typically present with problematic behaviors which are associated with mental illness.  Early years are marked by sadness exhibited by despondence, vacant stares, and failure to thrive. Unchecked sadness often manifests at the toddler stage as being mad or angry with hitting, biting, and pinching others. By school age entry, this little human being has learned that being bad (punching, kicking, swearing) is about the only way they can get noticed and get their needs met. Sad/mad/bad children are crying for help, not for a mental illness diagnosis and certainly not for medication.

  1. Neurochemical

As stated previously, the development of psychotropic medications (anti-depressants, anti-anxiety, sedatives, stimulants, anti-psychotics) preceded establishing the origins of mental illness and is based on the “chemistry imbalance myth” which is still perpetrated by many education and health professionals. The brain is a bath of neurochemicals called transmitters which allow communication between nerve cells and is designed for homeostasis or balance. A person’s brain chemistry is changed by everything that influences him or her, whether internally or externally. When given exogenous chemicals such as an anti-depressant, the brain up or down regulates its own production of neurotransmitters to adjust to these foreign invaders resulting in a “neurotransmitter flood” with severe behavioural results (see 10 min. video by CCHR “Drugging Children”). While a child’s symptoms may in the short-term appear improved, long-term drug side effects are common and often are worse than the initial diagnosed symptoms. Acting out (violence) and suicide (acting in) are two of the most common psychotropic medication side effects which are more pronounced when prescribed for children in the early years; often these behavioral side effects are then further medicated. A travesty in the medical system is the lack of qualified psychologists and psychiatrists to adequately treat children with mental illness, leaving the less qualified family physician to diagnose and prescribe medications. While the discovery of certain neurotransmitters and their roles in mental disorders has led in turn to the discovery of seemingly effective medications to treat these disorders, it has also resulted in the unfortunate notion that medication is the only method of treatment that is helpful. We can stop this pervasive drugging of children with psychotropic medication by trial of other options (screen reduction, family support, increased access to healthy activities etc.).

  1. Organicity

Medical conditions such as brain tumors, overuse or improper use of drugs or alcohol, or traumatic injuries to the brain can result in damage to brain structure and function causing abnormal behaviors, Organic reasons for child problematic behaviour and/or mental illness must be considered and medically investigated prior to mental health diagnosis by requiring involvement of medical professionals on the child’s team.

  1. Stress

Stress activates the sympathetic nervous system causing the release of adrenalin and a flight, fight or fright (freeze) reaction. External stressors can be events (neglect, abuse, trauma) which activate the sympathetic response, whereas internal stressors can be thoughts, feelings or perceptions about those events. The interplay of these two forms of stress affects brain chemistry just as it can affect physical health, resulting in aberrant behaviours that can present as mental illness.

  1. Screens

Overuse of screen-based technologies is the greatest threat ever known to humankind. The ways in which we are raising and educating children with technology are not sustainable. What may appear to be anxiety, depression, ADHD or autism, may be early screen dependence or even screen addiction. Prior to mental health diagnosis and psychotropic medication prescription, children must have a screen media reduction intervention. Without this crucial step, well meaning health and education professionals have no idea what they are diagnosing and treating. For further information please read author’s published article “Unplug – Don’t Drug – A critical look at the influence of technology on child behavior with an alternative way of responding other than evaluation and drugging”.

  1. Attachment

The salient underlying causal factor for child mental illness lies in the quality of attachment between primary parent/caregiver and child. Consistent nurturing and love from caregivers combined with structure, routines and rules, creates predictability and security and helps children learn to self-regulate their emotions. The relationship between parents and how those parents treat and raise their children, contributes to the formation of each child’s own sense of self. Early relationships are a ‘social template’ which children use as a map for all future relationships. Self-regulation and social ability are two important components for eventual success as an adult. Primary attachment between parent and child can be malformed or disrupted through neglect, abuse or trauma. Early onset, intense, or prolonged neglect, abuse or trauma by a parent can create a world for children which may include chaos and unpredictability.  Unstable and violent environments can result in children feeling insecure, lonely, depressed, angry or anxious. Children who struggle with these feelings often exhibit a variety of problematic behaviors which may be mistakenly diagnosed as mental illness. For more information on attachment watch the 5 min. video “The role of attachment in infancy on later mental and physical health outcomes”.

  1. Addiction

As parents and educators become more and more addicted to screen media and devices, children are increasingly being neglected. In the absence of an attentive parent, children are forming unhealthy attachments and addictions to screens which again, can present as problematic behaviours and/or mental illness. Never before in the history of humankind, have we witnessed children with addictions. It is imperative that prior to any mental illness diagnosis or prescription of psychotropic medications, health and education professionals must perform a screen use inventory to determine screen media content and duration of use.

  1. Sense of Purpose

Humans are ‘pack animals’ and consequently don’t survive outside the ‘family pack’. Children flourish when they think they are integral members of their family pack and have a sense of duty or purpose. Consider a farming family 100 years ago where each child had multiple, scheduled chores which if they failed to complete in a timely manner, might result in death. This sense of purpose and routine are integral traits toward building self-worth and core values needed to become a successful worker in the future. Purpose and values are modelled by parents, but also achieved through scheduled chores. As we move toward this child mental health crisis, keeping in mind that we need to help children identify and engage in productive activities (chores, jobs) as mental health protective measures. Children who have a sense of purpose and self-worth are much less likely to engage in problematic behaviours.

Despite vast research supporting a variety of successful treatments for mental illness, many parents report that they were told by their medical professional that there is no “cure” for their child’s mental illness, and that their child will need to take psychotropic medication “for life”. While some parent report relief that finally their child has been given a diagnosis, there is a futility in being told there is nothing they can do to help their child relieve his/her suffering. If indeed primary attachment between parent and child is a salient component of child mental illness, then efforts to improve this important relationship should be front line and supported by all. Putting the cell phone down and picking up or paying attention to children is a great first step toward extinguishing mental illness. While Covid-19 has wreaked devastation on many struggling families, this pandemic has also offered families a starting point toward a different and better tomorrow. The Great Realization by Tom Foolery is a wonderful 4 min. video poem offering a new perspective of “wit and wonder”.

No one factor can be said to be the sole cause of mental illness; rather, mental health disorders result from a complex set of forces that act upon each person as an individual. Finding the various elements that contributed to the onset of an illness requires a team effort between the child, parents and health and education professionals. Identifying all factors, if possible, provides the best road map for the healing process.

Cris Rowan is a biologist, occupational therapist, international speaker and author of “Virtual Child – The terrifying truth about what technology is doing to children”. For additional information please visit her website at www.zonein.ca or blog at www.movingtolearn.ca. Cris can be reached at info@zonein.ca.

Kevlar for Teachers – The role of violent media in escalating student violence in schools.

Over the past year I’ve assessed ~ 100 elementary and high school students with most frequent reasons for referrals being poor self-regulation, aggression, and inability to pay attention (in that order). While I pride myself on being “fun” and generally well liked by students, I also have been increasingly kicked, pinched, punched, spit on, and sworn at on more than one occasion. It’s not unusual for students to ignore, defy, or refuse requests to work with me, and completion of requested tasks frequently require excessive coaxing, cajoling and even pleading. These aggressive and defiant acts by students are new for me and have been increasing markedly over the past 2-3 years. Concurrent with escalating violence and defiance by students is increasing reports of use of violent media content at a younger and younger age. Many of my grade K, 1 and 2 referred students report use of Mature rated video games including Call of Duty, Black Ops and Fortnite. With teachers reporting increasing incidents of student violence reaching a level where protective gear is now required in many districts, schools might consider educating students and parents regarding reduction and/or elimination of violent media content.

With rise in video gaming, prolific research is documenting concomitant rise in violence and aggression. In 2009 the American Academy of Pediatrics profiled extensive studies showing media violence is causally linked to child aggression, desensitization to violence, nightmares, and fear of being harmed. Early exposure to violent media content has been shown to increase risk of violent behavior. The American Academy of Pediatrics published a policy statement Virtual Violence in July 2016 advising  pediatricians, parents, industry and policy makers regarding current video game research and recommendations. Regarding research findings, Virtual Violence policy states: “Summarizing the results of > 400 studies including violent media of all types, researchers found there was a significant association between exposure to media violence and aggressive behavior, aggressive thoughts, angry feelings, and physiologic arousal. Another study performed a similar analysis focusing only on video games. The results, based on 140 such studies, found slightly larger negative effect sizes. Some contend, rightly, that these correlations are in the small to moderate range, but they are stronger than the associations between passive smoking and lung cancer, and many municipalities have banned smoking because of that risk”. APA goes on to recommend that children under the age of 6 years have no exposure to media violence, and first-person shooter games should be restricted from children under the age of 12 years.

I’m not alone in my observations about aggressive and defiant students as evidenced by the number of emails from teachers and principals piling up referencing problematic and violent behaviors in students. Just this week a grade 2-3 teacher in Ontario states “I have become increasingly dismayed the past four years with the prevalence of violent video games in the student population of this age; the students are less and less able to focus, take direction from adults, and get along with each other; needless to say, my job as a teacher is becoming increasingly difficult”. In July 2018 the Canadian Teachers’ Federation (CTF) released a study with teachers from Ontario, Quebec, and B.C. self-reporting about their experiences with violence in the classroom. The study found that between 41 and 90 per cent of surveyed teachers, depending on the jurisdiction, had experienced or witnessed violence directed toward teachers from students or parents. Violence was classified as everything from verbal harassment and swearing, to physical threats and assault. Sherri Brown, director of research and professional learning at the CTF, described the current state as an “escalating crisis.” Verbal threats, physical assault and incidents involving weapons were among the most frequently reported, according to Brown. Fast forward to this year where the number of violent incidents reported by educators with the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board has doubled in the past three years, from 2,713 in 2016-2017 to 5,430 between September 2018 and May 2019. Last school year in the Waterloo Region District School Board there were approximately 1,300 incidents involving elementary student-on-teacher violence, up from around 900 the previous year.

Teachers throughout Canadian schools are now feeling the need to wear Kevlar clothing to protect themselves due to this growing trend of violence in classrooms. “We’re (dealing with) everything to biting to kicking and punching,” said Jeff Pelich, the vice president of the local chapter of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO). “Between our teachers and educational assistants, and child and youth workers, many of them are now required to wear Kevlar, to wear full vests to protect themselves from punches and kicks.” Kevlar clothing can include, vests, arm or leg sleeves. The Ottawa Catholic School Board (OCSB) said its staff may wear protective equipment as needed, and all staff are required to complete a range of health and safety-related training annually. Sylvain Lamirande, an elementary teacher in the Upper Canada District School Board (UCDSB), said protective gear, including padded jackets and “spit masks,” has become “standard issue” for educational assistants. “I mean, the fact that we’re using Kevlar in the classroom seems to me that something needs to be done.” Educators are reluctant to report incidents of violence by students for “fear of repercussions,” Brown said. Results from ETFO’s members showed only 22 per cent of teachers said they would report cases of verbal or physical violence, and less than a quarter said steps were taken to prevent future incidents. David Mastin, ETFO’s Durham local president, says his region is losing teachers within their first five years on the job.

In spring of 2018 Ontario’s former Liberal government released the Workplace Violence in School Boards: A Guide to the Law to help schools develop workplace violence policies. At the time, the province also pledged to fund an online reporting tool to simplify the process. Some Ontario schools and boards are encouraging educators to take Nonviolent Crisis Intervention training, a de-escalation program, run by the Milwaukee-based Crisis Prevention Institute. The training can range from a one-day classroom seminar to four days to become certified to teach it. Trainees learn how to calm a child in the midst of a crisis by detecting signs of anxiety and anger, and how to respond to a physical altercation, including how to safely hold a child. “I really don’t believe half a day or a day is enough,” said Terri-Lynn Platt, health and safety coordinator with the Elementary Teachers of Toronto. “It can become very violent, very quickly.” The training stresses that physical intervention should only be used if the child is in “imminent danger,” Platt said. Regardless of that caveat, teachers and unions remain leery of the program. Platt argued that whoever takes the training ends up becoming the school’s defacto crisis person. “I will tell teachers it is wise not to have that training.”

The CTF study indicates that causal factors associated with escalating violence by students in Canadian schools are varied but indicate increased class size, insufficient student support, poor problem-solving skills, low socio-economic status, special needs and poor mental health may all be contributing factors. What is not mentioned in any of these articles is rising levels of exposure to physical and sexualized violent media content. While teachers are quick to point out that media content is a parental issue, many schools allow students to bring their own devices and access to violent media content during the school day. A teacher clearly cannot supervise nor restrict student access to violent media content on 25-30 individual devices, especially when many students are refusing to do school work. Violent video games, pornography, social media and cyberbullying are routinely used media content by students in schools who allow personal devices; connecting the dots between violent content and aggressive behavior is unfortunately not readily recognized by educators. Expelling students who exhibit violent and defiant behaviors associated with exposure to violent media content results in short-term gain and long term pain as student will just game unsupervised at home. As schools increase data collection regarding violent incidents by students, logical next steps would be as follows:

  1. Data Intake: perform Technology Usage Questionnaires with students to help identify and quantify exposure to violent media content, duration, and age of first use and then subsequently uncover possible correlation to violence and aggression episodes.
  1. Student Education: explain sedentary yet overstimulating effects on body which include high blood pressure when gaming, brain pruning to front lobes and effects of brain pruning on ability to pay attention and learn, progression toward gaming addiction. Enlist school counselling services.
  1. Classroom Tech Talks: discuss how much and what type of screen use students are doing, discuss importance of sleep, identify alternate activities to gaming, give the Survivor Unplug Challenge e.g. “Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to go 24 hours without screens”.
  1. School Screenbuster Program: train grade 6/7 students to do Classroom Tech Talks and weekly 15 min. follow-up sessions (Balanced Technology Management Teacher Training Certification available Sept. 2019).
  1. Parent Education: train teachers/counsellors to provide initial education session and then monthly parent Tech Talks (Balanced Technology Management Teacher Training Certification available Sept. 2019).
  1. Parent Meetings: enlist parents to understand their role/job as a parent; try to get family to do a 24 hour unplug; if they can’t, try to arrange family counselling. Student violence is not a student issue, but rather reflective of significant neglect, abuse or trauma issues at home.

Additional Reading:

Ten reasons why video games should be banned from children under the age of 12

This article was written by pediatric occupational therapist, biologist, international speaker, and author Cris Rowan who is passionate about changing the ways in which children use technology. Cris’s website www.zonein.ca, blog www.movingtolearn.ca, and book www.virtualchild.ca can be referenced for additional information. Cris can be reached at info@zonein.ca.

Where Do the Children Play? What happens when our kid’s only childhood memory is a screen?

One of our jobs as parents is to create childhood memories that will sustain them through their lifetime; memories that will be told around the camp fire, at weddings, and even at funerals. Memories so beautiful and heart felt they make us smile, laugh, and cry. Lyrics from a Cat Stevens song illustrate real concerns regarding preserving childhood and play spaces “We’ve come a long way, we’re changing day to day, but tell me where do the children play?” In the rush to digitalize childhood, society seems to have forgotten critical essential components needed to create a sustainable child. Play spaces where children can run, yell, and be free to imagine other worlds are rapidly deteriorating without so much as a backward glance. Tall swings, long slides and merry-go-rounds were standard equipment in playgrounds of the past, and Toys “R” Us was a birthday and Christmas must. Children use to “play out” until dark and get into adventurous mischief because parents weren’t monitoring their every move. Students either biked or walked to school and participated in a vast diversity of after school sports and club activities. Recesses were long and PE teachers ensured they were packed with loads of gym, playground and game-type activities. Children seemed happy…only a 20 years ago, they seemed secure, well adjusted, and on their way to becoming independent adults with bright futures, and – happy memories to sustain them through the tough times. Fast forward to today. Toys “R” Us went belly up after 70 years of providing kids with thrilling toys. Playgrounds are infantile and dilapidated with licencing forced removal of everything fun or challenging. Streets and parks are quiet and deserted. As epidemic levels of obesity climb, kids are dropped off at school where No Child Left Behind initiatives have eliminated PE and decimated recess. When students are allowed recess, they spend their time on mandated BYOD screens…sedentary, inside, alone, and sad. With the onset of video games and social media has come pervasive and escalating child behavior management issues including aggression, depression, anxiety and suicide. As outdoor rough and tumble imaginative play rapidly becomes a thing of the past, society might be wise to consider the following nature and movement-based initiatives to enhance child development, behavior and learning.

While parents have known for decades that nature offers serious benefits to our physical and mental health, the move from active outdoor play to passive and sedentary indoor screen watching has been pervasive and rapid. Citing ‘fear’ as a primary motivator, parents universally agree that outside is “not safe” and consequently keep their children inside. What is odd is the general acceptance by parents that online sites are ‘safe’ even with the alarming rise in online pedophile presence. Studies abound showing that nature’s ‘green space’ is the most attention restorative agent available to teacher to enhance learning, yet many students are kept inside during recess to finish work or as a disciplinary measure, or even worse, allowed to stay inside the classroom and gaze absently at their phones or watch movies. The downside of keeping kids sedentary, isolated and indoors is taking a heavy toll on our children. UBC’s Healthy Early Intervention Partnership study of 47,000 preschool children in 2016 showed 1 in 3 children enter school developmentally delayed, 1 in 3 are obese or overweight (Stats Canada), and 1 in 7 children and youth have a diagnosed mental illness (Canadian Mental Health Association, 2016). While our children have never been sicker than they are today, we can reverse this destructive trend through improved engagement in outdoor play by focusing on the following evidence based school, home and community initiatives.

  1. Allow 3-4 recess breaks/day for research proven improved attention and learning, better grades, decreased need for movement ‘body breaks’ in classroom, decreased problematic behaviors and improved self-regulation. CBC interview (7:30 min) with principal Paul McKay and classroom teacher talk about every hour have a 15 min. break with improved attendance (up 5%), improved grades, happier students, less lethargy and improved classroom participation. Suggest no more than one hour in classroom followed by 15 min. gym or playground break.
  1. Enhance existing playgrounds with age appropriate and challenging equipment. All playground equipment must be anchored in cement with 6-8” of absorbent surfacing to ensure safety (Canadian Standards Association) with coverage of structures for sun, rain, and snow protection. Think in terms of the following age groups each needing devices relevant to their age, inclusively arranged to accommodate people across the life span:
  1. 0-5 years: infant/toddlers swings, saucer swing for social, slides, extensive trike path, covered sand box, water table, climbing structures.
  2. 6-12 years: merry-go-round, high swings/slide, cargo net structure (Lunar Blast), climbing wall outside building,
  3. 13-18 years: obstacle course equipment,
  4. Teachers and parents: cardio stepper, large covered fire pit with surround seating.
  5. Elders: benches, picnic tables, covered areas.
  1. Start each day outside with school ‘tough mudder’ run or inside in gym with obstacle course and loud music; do one class per day outside.
  1. Consideration given to allowing alternate forms of creative physical play through allowing students to build forts or use a variety of construction type materials and ‘loose parts’ (anything that’s not bolted down).
  1. Reduce rules and increase risk and challenge while also maintaining a safe and congenial play environment. Making playgrounds more dangerous with less parent/teacher intervention and more loose parts promotes creativity and imagination, while also improving independence and self motivation. Consider creation of a rough and tumble play zone for those kids who need more intense play opportunities. No Rules Schools actually improve behavior and enhance learning!
  1. Establish sensory-motor room in schools with inclusion of the following areas: hangout space (couch, carpet, beanbag chairs), chillout space (quiet space behind bookcase with beanbag chair), and workout space (TRX Strapping, slam balls, free weights, exercise bike/rowing machine/elliptical). EA’s could be assigned to this room 2-3 times per day at designated intervals and students sent there to have their sensory and motor needs met (as opposed to being sent to principal’s office).

This article was written by pediatric occupational therapist, biologist, international speaker, and author Cris Rowan who is passionate about changing the ways in which children use technology. Cris’s website www.zonein.ca, blog www.movingtolearn.ca, and book www.virtualchild.ca can be referenced for additional information. Cris can be reached at info@zonein.ca.

Momo Is A Red Flag – The internet is not a safe nor a happy place for our children.

Diagnosis Rate and Rate of Change for Major Depression by Age

Despite police reports and pediatrician citations, the recent Momo Suicide Challenge was determined by media to be fake. Hoax or not, the resurfacing Momo Suicide Challenge presents parents, teachers and governments with a hard to ignore fact – the internet is not a safe place for children, and we’ve known for years that the internet is not making our children happy. In 2018 Blue Cross Blue Shield Association release findings showing a 64% rise in depression in teens between 2013 and 2016 with the Center for Disease Control reporting in 2016 a concurrent 30% rise in suicide. Jean Twenge’s 2017 research found that teens who spend five or more hours per day on their devices are 71 percent more likely to have one risk factor for suicide regardless of the content consumed. It is becoming increasing harder to ignore the real threats and harm posed to children and teens by spending long durations of unsupervised time in the virtual world. This failure to protect children and teens online originates with absolute disregard for child safety by the internet giants including WhatsApp, Facebook and YouTube. These platforms consistently use faulty and ineffective algorithms to screen content, often relying instead on parents to report inappropriate content…after their children have been exposed. Following is a historical detailing of seemingly forgotten events of equal or greater importance to the Momo Suicide Challenge indicating that we have known for some time the internet is an unsafe and unhappy ‘virtual hole’ which many children and youth unsuspectingly are falling into. The rise in these scary events indicate the urgent need by parents, teachers and governments to get involved and hold our social media and video gaming designers responsible and demand immediate changes to the internet to improve safety for children and youth. Until such time, parents and teachers are wise to prohibit use of unsupervised internet use in homes and school environments. Our children have a right to be safe and happy.

The past few years have been marked by numerous disturbing events which have raised a few eyebrows, but surprisingly garnered only fleeting concerns by parents, teachers and governments. Everyone is likely to remember the 2014 stabbing death by two 12-year-olds in Wisconsin who reported ‘Slender’ (a fictional cartoon character) told them that they needed to kill their friend in order to protect their families. Following the recent Momo Suicide Challenge reports, Common Sense Media detailed that while there are many funny and harmless internet challenges posed to children, there are equally as many harmful ones including the Tide Pod Challenge where children are encouraged to eat Tide Pods, as well as the Choking/Fainting/Pass-Out Challenge where kids either choke other kids, press hard on their chests, or hyperventilate which has resulted in reported deaths. The Blue Whale Suicide Challenge during the summer of 2017 was instigated by a 21-year-old disturbed man who solicited teens through chat sites and enticed them to participate in a series of 50 tasks which ended ultimately with their suicide. While it is uncertain as to the total number of teens who did suicide as a result of this challenge, there are numerous personal stories brought to media by grieving parents to provide credible proof. Unbelievably, The Blue Whale Challenge still exists online as evidenced by Jan. 21, ’19 suicide by a 13-year-old girl in Turkey who shot and killed herself with parents citing her participation in The Blue Whale Challenge.

What many parents seem to miss is that Facebook, Whatsapp, and YouTube platforms themselves often perpetuate harm. Their automated moderation systems fail to flag inappropriate content and their skewed content-recommendation algorithms promote extremist beliefs. These platforms  don’t protect kids against cyberbullying from peers, they milk kids under the age of 13 for money and engagement, and they promote truly gruesome content. YouTube continually demonstrates an ongoing failure to keep harmful content off their kid’s channel. Businesses are putting pressure on YouTube to clean up their complicit role in harming children by pulling advertising citing proof of “pedophiles lurking in comments sections”. The disturbing Peppa Pig videos and those videos with suicide instructions are regrettably very real. One suicide instruction video was reported to media by Dr. Hess, pediatrician but is apparently unrelated to Momo. Parent and teacher Emily Cherkin brilliantly states in her ParentMap article “It should not take a viral prank (real or fake) to get us worried about what kids are seeing and doing online” and details the importance of parents and teachers openly discussing with children the “shady side” of the internet.

Parents and teachers do not trust technology giants who are making trillions of dollars through provision of internet content to be responsible. Until government intervenes to with regulations legislation to force the Tech Giants to quit using persuasive addiction design and faulty screening practices, this situation will only get worse. The internet is an ugly place where we do not want to “drop off” our children for the day, or even a minute. Let’s bring this errant Tech Train back to the station and give it some much needed repairs. In the meantime, put down your phone and go outside and play with your kids. They will love you for it.

This article was written by Cris Rowan, BScBi, BScOT a biologist and pediatric occupational therapist passionate about changing the ways in which children use technology. Cris’s website is www.zonein.ca, blog www.movingtolearn.ca, and book www.virtualchild.ca. Cris can be reached at info@zonein.ca.

Misguided Guidelines – Result of technology’s infiltration into government sectors

When it comes to keeping children safe from harm, societies traditionally trusted their health, education and social governments to advise and guide them. While not every branch of government is wholly without fault, generally governments could be relied upon to act ethically and in the best interests of the public. Not so anymore. With the onslaught of advancing technology has come a rapid and questionable infiltration of technology corporations into both private and public sectors. While technology reaps obvious benefits, its long-term effects are unknown, raising serious questions regarding children. Rapid infiltration of untested technologies is occurring in many government institutions such as schools and hospitals, possibly resulting in perilous outcomes. Unbeknownst to the public, technology industry giants are challenging established institution’s ethical boundaries by pushing their products on children at an unprecedented state. Schools and hospitals are opening their doors to unethical and corrupt technology corporations who have one goal – to mine data and sell product. Once revered and respected, many institutions are compromising their previous ethical standards as they strive to conform to technology industry pressure to adopt the latest and greatest AI or IT. Choosing advancing technology over the long-term health and well being of children is tragic and will likely result in child harm. Public beware of who is guiding your governments to make crucial decisions regarding the health, safety and education of your children. This article is designed to shed light on three areas where government institutions caved to technology industry pressure, swaying them toward unsafe and unclear guidelines for children. These are just a minority of recent events which indicate that our governments are failing miserably to protect our most dear and cherished commodity, our children.

Infiltration of Health Sector by Microsoft

Just as Apple and Google are competing to infiltrate the education sector, Microsoft is deeply imbedding itself in healthcare. While positive outcomes from partnerships between technology corporations and government institutions are obvious, negative consequences are often hidden or disregarded. The recent media coverage of a research review by the Royal College of Pediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) raises serious concerns regarding partnerships between technology corporations and government healthcare institutions.  In addition to apparent conflict of interest, the RCPCH review used faulty and insufficient search strategies which media then misinterpreted and misrepresented to the public. BBC Jan. 4, ’19 article Worry less about children’s screen use, parents told stated the RCPCH review was carried out by experts at University College London (UCL). RCPCH president Prof Russell Viner prefaces the review by stating on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme “screens are part of modern life” adding: “The genie is out of the bottle – we cannot put it back.”

RCPCH Apparent Conflict of Interest

UCL is academic partner to Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH) and is London’s leading multidisciplinary university with 11,000 staff, 35,000 students and an annual income of over £1bn. GOSH is an international centre of excellence in child healthcare and together with their research partner the UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health, GOSH forms the UK’s only academic Biomedical Research Centre specialising in paediatrics. Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH) has announced a partnership with Microsoft which will see them collaborate on the development of artificial intelligence (AI) tools to transform child health. How does this collaboration manage the obvious conflict of interest?

RCPCH Flawed Search Strategy

The research review by the Royal College of Pediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) stated the following search strategy:

We searched electronic databases (Medline, Embase, PsycINFO and CINAHL) in February 2018. We used the search terms in Medline as follows: child OR teenager OR adolescent OR youth AND screen time OR television OR computer OR sedentary behaviour OR sedentary activity AND health with publication type limited to systematic review with or without meta-analysis. Similar search terms were used in the other databases. We did not limit studies by date or language. Identified relevant reviews were hand-searched for additional likely references.”

This search strategy is flawed as when researchers write papers, they are usually more specific in the terms used. An example would be excessive screen time is associated with: depression, obesity, anxiety, insomnia, abnormal brain development etc. The search term “health” encompasses all of the above, but the search strategy utilized will miss all of the above because the abstracts, titles, and keywords may not include the general term “health”. A better search strategy would be to replace the term health with symptoms and problems associated with excessive screen time e.g. addiction, depression, craving, anxiety, sleep deprivation, insomnia, obesity, behavioral problems, academic difficulties, brain development, etc.

Misinterpretation and Misrepresentation of Data

The RCPCH study was performed in Feb. 2018 and was accepted for publication by British Journal of Medicine in March 2018 (not much time for reflection on the outcomes before publication).  The study shows multiple strong adverse impacts on health but gets moulded into guidelines in which few of those impacts are mentioned. Guidelines are then release to the media (see Guardian article “Screen time not intrinsically bad for children, says Doctors” with wording that is vague and open to misinterpretation by media outlets, with no evidence that the general membership was involved or even approved these guidelines. At the same time the UK Health Secretary was calling for restrictions to be placed on social media.

Infiltration of Education Sector by Apple and Google

The past decade has witnessed rapid proliferation of screen devices (cell phones, tablets, laptops) in school settings without evidence-based research showing they are effective or safe. While researchers in neuroscience, epidemiology, toxicology and child developmental fields have issued warnings documenting health hazards from technological devices, public awareness is limited and health agencies whose mandate is to protect children remain silent (Moskowitz, 2017). It almost appears as if the education sector believes it can act independent of child safety. Roxanna Marachi, PhD from San Jose’ State University in 2018 conducted a content analyses on four widely disseminated reports promoting emerging forms of educational technology, blended and personalized learning programs, and strategies to rapidly scale such programs in schools. Marachi’s study revealed 0% attention to health and/or developmental concerns that have been documented in the scientific, education, health, and child development research literatures. In contrast, analyses revealed relatively high rates of finance-related terms such as investment and market within the reports. It is abundantly clear that the education technology industry’s sole intent is to make money off the backs of young children not only through device and programs sales, but also through student data mining which grossly infringes on student privacy. While technology corporations are infiltrating the education sector with inaccurate, untested and fraudulent claims of improved learning and efficiency, school administrations are actively disregarding and discounting all negative mental, physical, social and cognitive adverse effects of escalating screen use by children. How did this happen?

While there are many devices and programs designed for educational settings, one of the most prolific and sinister is Summit Learning, an online platform used to collect student data and deliver instruction and assessments. The platform was developed with the financial and technical support of Facebook, the Gates Foundation and the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative, a for-profit LLC headquartered in California founded by billionaire Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan. The Parent Coalition for Student Privacy reports that students who use Summit Learning spend > 3 hours per day in front of a screen with only 10 min. of supervisor support, and by the end of last school year, only 30% passed. Summit Learning website claims the right to collect an extraordinary amount of personal student information including student and parent names and their email addresses; student ID numbers, attendance, suspension and expulsion records, disabilities, their gender, race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status, their date of birth, teacher observations of their behavior, their grade promotion or retention, test scores, college admissions, survey responses, homework assignments, and any extracurricular activities they engage in. Summit also plans to track students after graduation from high school, including college attendance and careers. The Parent Coalition for Student Privacy goes on to report the Summit shares this data to as many as 19 corporate “partners” including the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative, to run their services and do research to help them improve their “product.” In addition, several of the websites that students are assigned through the Summit platform track student data for marketing and advertising purposes, including YouTube. There is no independent oversight of Summit or its partner companies to ensure that they are using the data appropriately or securing it from breaches.

With prolific research showing little to no academic benefits from screen use in schools and equally as much research showing harm to children from excessive screen use, one really has to wonder who is driving this rapidly escalating EdTech Train. With the OECD releasing a scathing denouncement of EdTech in 2015, schools continued to escalate screen use. Despite knowledge about tech industry data mining and privacy breaches, schools continued to escalate screen use. With mounting research showing the isolating and sedentary aspects of screens displace achieving literacy, social interaction and physical fitness, and high screen use is causally linked to poor physical and mental health, schools continued to escalate screen use. With full knowledge that students are routinely accessing inappropriate content while at school including video games, pornography, cyberbullying, and social media, schools continued to escalate screen use. Knowing that some students are addicted to screens and that multitasking inherent in screen use is harming student health, school continued to escalate screen use.

Through pervasive and unchecked screen use penetrating every sector of being, we have unknowingly participated in an epic experiment on humans fueled by greed in the technology industry, which is presently showing grave harm to children’s physical, social, mental and academic performance. We need to stop the EdTech Train, bring it back to the station and scrutiny of common sense, and pick up all of the children who have fallen off.

What about the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)?

Wireless devices have not been proven safe with mounting evidence showing harm, yet few members of the public are aware of the enormity of this unfolding travesty. Many levels of federal, state/provincial and municipal governments have consultants from the technology industry who have much to lose if restrictions were put in place to stop the production of technology devices and unrolling of 5G. There are 3 sources of accumulating data showing wireless radiation is unsafe: 1) epidemiological human studies, 2) experimental animal studies, and 3) rising cancer incidence in humans (for additional information see Wireless Radiation is Not Safe for Children).  Health government agencies while aware of this rising threat have failed to warn the public or advise the public of what to do to keep children safe.

The FDA nominated the National Toxicology Program to do an extensive study on mice and rats investigating possible links between cell phone radiation and cancer. Preliminary results were released in 2016 with final study results made public in Jan. ’18 showing ‘clear evidence’ for malignant heart schwannoma and ‘some evidence’ for brain glioma and adrenal pheochromocytoma. This evidence was reviewed by expert panel in Mar. ’18 confirming original findings. Yet Mark Hertsgaard reported in The Guardian article “The inconvenient truth about cancer and mobile phones” that not one major news organization in the US or Europe reported this scientific news, but then news coverage of mobile phone safety has long reflected the outlook of the wireless industry. For a quarter of a century now, the industry has been orchestrating a global PR campaign aimed at misleading not only journalists, but also consumers and policymakers about the actual science concerning mobile phone radiation. Indeed, big wireless has borrowed the very same strategy and tactics big tobacco and big oil pioneered to deceive the public about the risks of smoking and climate change, respectively. And like their tobacco and oil counterparts, wireless industry CEOs lied to the public even after their own scientists privately warned that their products could be dangerous, especially to children.

Dr. Robert Melnick in an article for The Hill “There’s a clear cell phone-cancer link, but the FDA is downplaying it” published on Nov. 13, ’18 reports that according to Jeffrey Shuren, Director of the FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health, “these findings should not be applied to human cell phone usage,” adding that “we believe the existing safety limits for cell phones remain acceptable for protecting the public health” despite any existing supporting evidence. Dr. Melnick went on to say that while expressing this opinion, Dr. Shuren neglects to note that the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a part of the World Health Organization, classified radio-frequency radiation from wireless devices as a “possible human carcinogen” based largely on findings of increased risks of gliomas and Schwann cell tumors in the brain near the ear in humans after long term use of cellphones. Thus, the same tumor types are elevated in both animals and humans exposed to cell phone radiation. Dr. Melnick in The Hill article goes on to report that the FDA’s position is quite unusual because it was this agency that nominated cell phone radiation emitted from wireless communication devices to the NTP for toxicity and carcinogenicity studies in experimental animals so as to “provide the basis to assess the risk to human health.”

Health concerns for children may be greater than that for adults due to increased penetration of cell phone radiation within the brains of children. Simply ignoring the cancer data from the NTP studies is not in the interest of public health. Because of the widespread use of cell phones among the general public, even a small increase in cancer risk would have a serious public health impact. An important lesson that should be learned from the NTP studies is that we can no longer assume that any current or future wireless technology, including 5G, is safe without adequate testing.

Sarah Starkey with the UK Independent Neuroscience and Environmental Health Research published an article in 2016 titled Inaccurate official assessment of radiofrequency safety by the Advisory Group on Non-ionising Radiation which states the Advisory Group on Non-ionising Radiation (AGNIR) 2012 report forms the basis of official advice on the safety of radiofrequency (RF) electromagnetic fields in the United Kingdom and has been relied upon by health protection agencies around the world. This review describes incorrect and misleading statements from within the report, omissions and conflict of interest, which make it unsuitable for health risk assessment. The executive summary and overall conclusions did not accurately reflect the scientific evidence available. Independence is needed from the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP), the group that set the exposure guidelines being assessed. This conflict of interest critically needs to be addressed for the forthcoming World Health Organisation (WHO) Environmental Health Criteria Monograph on Radiofrequency Fields. Decision makers, organisations and individuals require accurate information about the safety of RF electromagnetic signals if they are to be able to fulfil their safeguarding responsibilities and protect those for whom they have legal responsibility.

Wireless radiation threat to our children is real and will result in harm. Applying the pre-cautionary principle (increase distance, decrease duration) while reducing radiation, is unlikely to protect children in the long term. It is time for parents and teachers to “Go wired” and use only ethernet cabled devices with children.

This article was written by Cris Rowan, BScBi, BScOT a biologist and pediatric occupational therapist passionate about changing the ways in which children use technology. Cris’s website is www.zonein.ca, blog www.movingtolearn.ca, and book www.virtualchild.ca. Cris can be reached at info@zonein.ca.