I was chatting with a mom this week about her son who has a diagnosis of adhd, and was suggesting some environmental interventions that might help him with his rage and aggression (he is currently waitlisted). I mentioned research proven techniques for aggression such as reduction in violent media content, increased exposure to movement and nature, and more human connection and touch. The Mom kept saying to me “You’re not getting it; he has adhd. It’s HIM that has the problem, not ME”! As we talked, I could hear kids screaming in the background, along with a blaring TV, while she relayed to me that her son was hitting her, and had recently tried to choke his younger sister. This child is six years old, and already on stimulant medication. I wish I could say this situation is rare, but I can’t. Of the 28 children on my early intervention caseload, half have behavior and/or self-regulation disorders. This article explores how depriving children of the four critical factors for optimal development and learning – movement, touch, human connection, and nature, could be resulting in the rise in child mental illness.
20 years ago, I did not have one child on my pediatric occupational therapy caseload with a mental illness, yet in a 2007 published document, Charlotte Waddel with the Faculty of Health at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia reported that one in six children aged 8-18 years have a diagnosed mental illness, with many on psychotropic medications (stimulants, antidepressants, antianxiety, sedatives, antipsychotics). Autism is now 1 in 88, and adhd 1 in 8, with depression and anxiety diagnoses soaring. The vast majority of child mental illness research focuses on investigating biological factors, as opposed to environmental causes, as this type of research receives generous funding from pharmaceutical corporations. Investigating biological causes for child mental illness is also more “politically correct” so to speak, as the blame or causal factor for the child’s behavior is placed on genes, chemical imbalances, diet or any number of other non-human elements. While blame never results in any productive action, finding the causal factor for today’s climbing incidence of child mental illness is imperative, in order to best address how to prevent and treat it. The presumption by health and education professionals that a child with behavior problems must be “mentally ill”, is a new trend, one that and is rapidly sweeping across North America. 95% of the world’s Ritalin is consumed in North America, where children use an average of 7.5 hours per day of entertainment technology. Sedentary, neglected, isolated, indoors, and exposed to violent media content may be a factor in this rise of child mental illness. Continuing to focus on finding the gene or chemical cause of child mental illness not only wastes precious time and money, but also fails to address the real problem, and consequently results in child behaviors getting worse, much worse.
Regardless of the billions of dollars spent looking for a biological cause for child mental illness, at this point in time there are no findings that confirm any neuroanatomical, neurochemical, or genetic difference in children who have a mental illness diagnosis, and children who don’t. The exception is children with a mental illness diagnosis who were put on psychotropic medications; a significant percentage of these children show structural changes to their brains, in particular, reduced brain size. Numerous studies show that children who suffer abuse or neglect also have different brain structures (smaller brains), than children who aren’t abused or neglected. Children who are sedentary, don’t play outside, and are overstimulated with technology, also show differences in brain structure when compared to children who exercise, are exposed to nature, and stay within technology recommended limits of 2 hours per day.
Could overexposure to technology, and the secondary effects on children who are sedentary, isolated, neglected, overstimulated, exposed to violence, nature deprived and detached, actually constitute the primary contributing factors to the observed rise in child mental illness? Current research does not support the idea that children are born mentally ill, we likely make them that way. Rather than helping parents learn more about critical factors which will optimize child growth and learning, many health and education professionals are readily adopting the notion that a badly behaved child must be mentally ill. 50% of referrals to physicians for children who receive an adhd diagnosis come from teachers. In 7 out of 10 cases, physicians recommend stimulant medication for a child diagnosed for adhd, in deference to recommended therapies. When research clearly shows that access to movement, touch, human connection, and nature enhance child attention and behavior, why would these techniques not be our first and foremost interventions?
The new millennium child’s brain and body are undergoing rapid change as a result of overexposure to technology, with secondary long term effects yet to come. Consequent behaviors are difficult for parents and teachers to manage, resulting in the current trend to diagnose and medicate children. The New England Journal recently reported that the ways in which we are presently raising our children to be sedentary, are no longer sustainable. In order to ensure sustainable futures for all children, health and education professionals need to shift their focus away from diagnosing and medicating child behavior, and toward supporting and educating parents. Encouraging technology reduction, as well as more movement, touch, human connection and nature, will go a long way toward growing a healthier and happier child.
Zone’in Foundation Series Workshops for parents, health and education professionals present current research and raise awareness regarding the impact of technology on child development and learning. The three day FSW’s are created by occupational therapist Cris Rowan, author of “Virtual Child – The terrifying truth about what technology is doing to children”, and cover the following topics: sensory processing, motor development, attachment and addictions, technology balance, moving to learn, and school redesign for success. The FSW’s will be offered in five locations in 2012/2013: Prince George BC, Edmonton AB, Saskatoon SK, Winnipeg MB, and Dallas TX.
Zone’in Products for elementary aged children address the effects of technology overuse on children, and consist of the following: Zone’in improves attention and self-regulation, Move’in teaches children to print, Unplug’in builds skill and confidence in activities, and Live’in Resource Guide is a media literacy program.
Research references for this article can be located on Zone’in Fact Sheet.