Jessica Tolhurst (14) took her own life after constant online bullying

Since the introduction of smartphones and social media in 2010, rates of hospitalisation for intentional self-harm have risen 62% for young women aged 15-19 and 221% for girls 14 and under.

The ‘completed suicide’ rate for girls born between 1999–2003 is almost twice as high as it was for the Baby Boomers at the same age.

Had rates of mental illness stayed consistent with their pre-2010 levels, we would have seen around 260,000 fewer girls aged 16-24 experiencing mental disorders last year.

These are the findings of research commissioned by the Menzies Research Centre (MRC) and conducted by the CT Group, coordinated by Freya Leach at MRC.

Although the research related to young women and girls, similar results would very likely apply to young men and boys.

So, what can parents do to cope with these shocking facts?

The good news is that we are starting to wake up to the poison we are giving kids by way of access to smartphones and other devices at a young age. 

A positive example is the story of the father of seven who devised a sensible and clever approach to limit screen time after noticing troubling signs in his kids.

Forty-one-year-old Richard Wadsworth is a trained psychiatrist who lives with his wife, five daughters, and two sons in Idaho, USA.

When the pandemic hit, Mr. Wadsworth, observed his kids’ screen time increase as their studies moved online.

“They were on screens pretty much all the time,” he told The Epoch Times. “They started turning to screens for entertainment as well.”

From watching YouTube shorts to playing games online, screens slowly began to permeate every aspect of their lives.

“It looked a lot, to me, like what I see with addiction,” Mr. Wadsworth said, adding that, as a psychiatrist, he had seen a similar pattern when dealing with alcoholics and drug addicts.

At work too, he saw several teen patients come in depressed and irritated.

Curious to know the cause, Mr. Wadsworth would ask his patients’ parents how their kids spent their days, and he would often be told that they were on their phones, all day, every day.

For some, when their phones were taken away, they would threaten violence against themselves and others.

“I had a lot of kids that would actually end up in the psychiatric ward. They’re acting as if someone had taken away their heroin or something. And it was really kind of scary to watch,” he said.

Sharing a recent encounter with a patient, he described how when he told them that an average teen spent nine hours a day on the screen, the patient looked at him and said: “I do more than that every day”.

“Every chance I get at school, I’m pulling up my phone, I’m watching some kind of video. As soon as I’m off of school, that’s what I do. I get on either a video game or a screen, and I do that until 1 o‘clock or 2 o’clock in the morning, and then I just repeat that every day.”

Witnessing these extreme behaviours in his patients, he concluded that the lives of today’s youth are a far cry from his childhood days when most of his time was spent playing outdoors and communicating verbally with friends.

His experiences with patients addicted to technology also made him look into how much time his own children were spending on screens.

This prompted him to have a conversation with them about the negative effects of increased screen usage on mental health. Initially, he was met with some opposition from his kids, who range in age from 1 to 14.

“They didn’t want to stop,” Mr. Wadsworth said. “They wanted to keep looking at screens as they enjoyed it.”

His daughter, who was trying to break away from screens, also had a realization.

She came up to him and said: “Dad, I need you to take this computer away from me, break it, throw it in the garbage. I’m spending way too much time on these screens, and I’m not doing anything anymore. Every chance I get, I find myself trying to go back to the computer and trying to spend time watching these TikTok or YouTube shorts.”

Acknowledging that it was hard to eliminate screens from their lives, he came up with an idea to start restricting the usage of screens for certain periods and referred to it as a “screen fast.”

Within just a day of implementing the fast, he noticed that his kids—except the little ones—were reading books. It was a sight that he hadn’t seen before.

Soon, the screen fasts evolved into a list of activities – such as cleaning the house, laundry, exercising, and playing outside – that the kids needed to complete before using a screen.

As his children got to work and completed their list of tasks, Mr. Wadsworth would lock up all the screens in his office, and give them back only when the kids had finished the other tasks.

Since implementing these techniques to cut down screen time, he has observed a positive impact on his kids.

“They were outside a lot more, they were playing with friends outside, they were doing things outside, they have a little fort that they started building in the backyard, you know, they’re all reading more often,” he said. “It was just like a happier, better week.”

Beyond the screen fast and checklist, Mr. Wadsworth’s children don’t own smartphones and instead have a phone that has basic functions such as calling, texting, maps, and more.

His advice to other parents? Only buy your children a smartphone when they turn 18.

“It’s so dangerous on so many levels for kids that are younger, to get addicted if they already have a smartphone,” he said.

Teaching your children good habits for using social media can have lasting positive benefits to their emotional and behavioural development.

Children are not necessarily going to like or thank their parents or teachers for online limits being set. However, most will recognise when they are older how wise that was, especially when they themselves have children.

Support your children by talking with them about what to stay aware of using social media and that you are there to help and support them.

Check and set the privacy settings, limit usage and learn about which parental control software you can use that best supports your children and technology types.

Thanks to Tyler Wilson at The Epoch Times, Freya Leach at the Menzies Research Centre (https://www.menziesrc.org) and ProActive Psychology (https://www.proactivepsychology.com.au) for their contributions to this article.

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