The graph above identifying the arrival of the term ‘screenager’ in literature shows just how modern a term it is. The peak in the early noughties might be attributable to the popularity of the band ‘Muse’ and their song of the same title published in 2001. As the Oxford English dictionary explains, the phrase is used to describe that human aged between 13 and 25, and identifies that in recent decades they have become connected 24/7 to the emotional world around them through the screens they carry in the palms of their hand.
Across the pond in the United States, a major and remarkable new film is doing the rounds, limited to responsible screenings in school halls, community centres and such like, so that families can attend and take on board the powers and dangers now confronting all with the ubiquitous technology of ‘screens’. The film ‘Screenagers’ (trailer) was made by Dr Delaney Ruston, who decided to make it to affirm the importance of helping children find balance in our tech filled world. The film provides a vehicle to bring parents, educators and children together for post screening discussions so change can happen not just in our homes but in our schools and communities.
“Screenagers is a very balanced, sympathetic and sane look at the way millions of teens are struggling with phones and games and technology in general. In part by letting the teens themselves speak about their own concerns and solutions, Screenagers is deeply affecting, too.” Dave Eggers, Best-Selling Author, Publisher and Education Activist
I have read a lot around this subject, though not yet watched the film, and have requested of Dr Ruston permission to show ‘Screenagers’ here in the UK at Claires Court. American schools and communities face difficulties some years ahead of us, often because their technology moves ahead of ours in terms of pace and opportunity (high-speed broadband and 3G for example). The film’s impressive testimonials highlight that it would add well to the mix of advice and support we already offer parents, by providing for the whole family an opportunity to discuss the problems our young people face, and seek solutions actually which otherwise won’t be found.
During the teenage and early twenties’ years, we are most alive emotionally, when heart rules head and impulsive behaviour is rapidly rewarded by social ‘high-fives’ and peer encouragement. It is at this time that we are most susceptible to our first real burst of clinical depression, and 50% of us will suffer such mental illness by age 25. The picture is worse for girls, with the female gender suffering by a 2:1 ratio. Those who ‘catch’ depression early, say by age 13, are more likely to have repeat bouts, each more serious than the previous. On each occasion those who suffer feel they are the cause of their problem and don’t want to bother their parents with their issues. In short, not receiving treatment the first time lends itself to repeat bouts in the near future.
In my own school community, we do everything we can to promote positive mindsets in our young people. Physical activity is an impressive antidote to feelings of low esteem. Our pro-social behaviour approach, school values, emphasis on education not examination, drop-in counselling and engagement with talking, mindfulness and willingness to challenge irrational beliefs are all ways we seek to identify early those who might be struggling with mental illness. Food is available throughout the day, and one should never undervalue the importance of cake in our lives (and we don’t). Honestly, we try to be the school with a smile on its face every minute of every day.
The trouble is, this is not enough. Teenagers feel emotions really strongly, far more personally than we as adults. As our school’s values guru, Margaret Goldthorpe reminds us every time she visits, it’s almost inevitable we adults disempower and demotivate the young people around us. Parents and teachers seem so very successful, cool and in control, and whilst children admire that, often they don’t feel able to come up to our expectations. We may offer them affirming homes and relationships with adults, but as they crave independence to learn this for themselves, they are confronted in the flesh and on screen by endless examples that they are not up to ‘scratch’. This negative propaganda about teenage failure is absolutely everywhere, perhaps even promulgated by my writing this blog. The politicians who talk about education and our schools continue to highlight just how ‘weak’ our children are in comparison with their peers in other countries, and guess what, our children take that on board and stress about it lots. Just look at today’s stories of headteachers ‘quitting’ because of ‘factory farming’ pupils, whilst our Prime Minister defends controversial plans to force all state schools in England to become academies, saying it is time to “finish the job”. Honestly what job – the destruction of our children’s mental health perhaps?
The initial cause of teenage mental turmoil comes from the stress the child’s emotional systems come under. These stressing agents include all forms of bullying and abuse, drugs such as alcohol and nicotine, as well as physical violence. Most of our children don’t face these, but other subtler forms cause almost as much stress. Simple nutrition has a massive impact upon the developing brain, and the memory box of the exercising 11 year old is bigger than that of their sedentary peer*. Those who choose to diet increase the likelihood of cognitive impairments for similar reasons in their adolescent years. The aggressively hostile school, in which children have education done to them rather than be informed partners in their own learning provides a consistent non-validating environment, particularly to those who see themselves as vocational rather than academic learners. Sport is barely available, and the new state curriculum of academic ‘Progress 8’ subjects only exacerbates the loss of creative release in doing something for themselves. Other pressures such as exams, sexual identity, relationship difficulties, significant illness or loss of a friend or family members all start impacting upon mental well-being, and all these stressors cause the arrival of emotional turmoil, leading to depression.
Our brain has two main areas of cognitive function, the cortex which provides for the logical conscious brain, and the amygdala (part of the mid brain) which handles our emotional system. The neural systems connect far more securely from amygdala to cortex than visa versa, so your logical brain can’t turn off your emotions. It’s even worse for the screenagers, because their neural systems start rearranging during this period so substantially that young people cannot even express in words how they feel!
We have ignored youth mental illness for years, because we have not fully understood its roots, and because actually in a loving family home and away from the social pressures of their peers, youngsters have been able to regress to childhood and be honest with their parents and family. Those of us who have seen our children go through University and beyond still see the therapeutic effects that exists for our young adults as they come ‘home’.
This new ‘screenager’ period has seen the pressures grow much more rapidly, because of course the ‘screen’ is always with them, constantly chirruping its siren call that on the other side better things are going on. And it’s not just passive viewing, but active social engagement and activity happening, often taking the user into risk-taking behaviours that cannot be ‘erased’. It’s one thing to take a drink or ‘grope’ another behind the bike shed, quite another to ‘snap-chat’ a potential love interest with a permanent unsuitable picture. As the latest survey of young lives highlights, the majority have engaged in such activities, leaving themselves vulnerable in so many ways.
I am full of admiration for this generation of young people. In the main, they are so much more conscious of the need to be healthy, to stay away from alcohol, tobacco and drugs. They want to do well by school and family. When they are very young, so many have been presented with the screen, large and small, as a way to better themselves, find out more and become independent learners, as well as have fun and play games. None of us want to blame our young people for the predicament we are finding them in. But hear you this; the epidemic of mental illnesses in the United States that triggered Dr Ruston to make her film last year is an object lesson to us all, a digital version of ‘Silent Spring’ which back in 1962 informed the world that the life saving, mosquito killing pesticides were quietly and lethally destroying our living world. And if we are not careful, we are permitting the digital equivalent to happen in 2016; and it’s not the screen itself that’s the problem, but the relentless and needless escalation of unnecessary pressure of all kinds on children whose limbic systems simply are not up to the job, and can’t help but shut down.
*For a detailed exposition by an expert in this field, watch Dr Harry Barry’s Youtube lecture – Depression and the Screenager