Has the internet ruined our children?

Our internet-dependent children (‘iGeners’) are hooked on electronic gadgetry, and, like fish out of water, cannot live without them. Research has shown that the incidence of depressive disorders in adolescents has practically exploded, in females much more than in males. The ready availability of nominal ‘friends’ is balanced only by the ever increasing possibility of real enemies always ready to criticise and to publicly shame – a new trend for those who can now shamelessly hide their identity as they inflict untold damage on their targets.

One worrying study from the US – where mores tend to predict what happens elsewhere several years later – has shown that over a period of five years the rate of intentional self harm increased by 30 per cent. What has caused this total loss of self-respect that leads to such dramatic outcomes at so tender an age? What level of desperation, which is increasingly leading to self-harm and even suicide, underlies this tragedy?

In Malta, depressive illness affects 40,000 adults, or one-tenth of the Maltese population (Times of Malta, October 10). It is stated that “half of all mental illness begins by the age of 14 and three-quarters by mid-20s”, and it “is also the commonest cause of non-accidental death” in persons aged between 14 and 28, often going undetected.

The current epidemic of anomie has been linked with the excessive use of electronic devices and especially the use of social media (see, for example, the book by Jean Twenge: iGen, Atria, 2017). The increase in mental health problems shows a direct positive correlation with the use of these devices.

On the other hand, there appears to be a reduced rate of depression in youngsters who spend more time involved with sport and exercise, interacting with other human beings rather than electronic devices, reading books and other print media, or even doing homework! There-should be a limit of time spent on electronic gadgets of no more than two hours per day.

Children at increased risk include those children who have been too over-protected by ‘helicoptering’ parents, and those who rely on emotion rather than reason to deal with life challenges, according to a recent publication (The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Luklanoff and Jonathan Haidt). While there is no simple way of protecting our children from internet-media­ted harm, these authors suggest that we should “prepare the child for the road”, since the other way round is not feasible – easier said than done!

While World Health Organisation data places Malta about half way down the list of countries affected by depression and anxie­ty disorders, clarion calls have been made loud and clear that measures should be taken to avoid further deterioration.

[First published on timesofmalta.com on December 23, 2018]

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