Thursday, 30 November 2017

Without Excuse

Dr David Clark And Youth Suicide

We have a foolish Minister of Health who stupidly criticized his predecessor--a political opponent and former Minister of Health--for his personal failure to prevent more youth suicides.  Naturally, his opponent said he would be delighted to attribute every youth suicide from now on to the ineptitude and lassitude of the new incoming Minister.  After all, what's sauce for the goose must be sauce for the gander.

Youth suicide, we are told, is a major problem.  We have been told that the issues are complex, opaque, confused, and often contradictory.  Pity, then, the silly new Minister of Health who implied that the solution was simple and that he would take personal responsibility for putting that solution (whatever that may be) into place.

In some senses it is indeed true that the solution is simple.  If there appears to be one major cause of youth suicide it is the widespread use of smart phones amongst young people appears to rank "up there".  Now before you impute all kinds of failings to us for making such a simplistic, outrageous claim, consider the following.

In the September 2017 issue of The Atlantic an article appeared tying teenage cellphone use to rising rates of youth suicide.  Here are some salient paragraphs:

Rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed since 2011. It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades. Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones.

Even when a seismic event—a war, a technological leap, a free concert in the mud—plays an outsize role in shaping a group of young people, no single factor ever defines a generation. Parenting styles continue to change, as do school curricula and culture, and these things matter. But the twin rise of the smartphone and social media has caused an earthquake of a magnitude we’ve not seen in a very long time, if ever. There is compelling evidence that the devices we’ve placed in young people’s hands are having profound effects on their lives—and making them seriously unhappy.  [Jean Twenge, "Have Smart Phones Destroyed a Generation?", The Atlantic, September 2017.]
The author goes on to describe how today's teenagers are less busy than their antecedents; they have more spare time.  What are they doing with it?
So what are they doing with all that time? They are on their phone, in their room, alone and often distressed.  . . .

Social-networking sites like Facebook promise to connect us to friends. But the portrait of iGen teens emerging from the data is one of a lonely, dislocated generation. Teens who visit social-networking sites every day but see their friends in person less frequently are the most likely to agree with the statements “A lot of times I feel lonely,” “I often feel left out of things,” and “I often wish I had more good friends.” Teens’ feelings of loneliness spiked in 2013 and have remained high since.

. . . . when teens spend more time on smartphones and less time on in-person social interactions, loneliness is more common.

So is depression. Once again, the effect of screen activities is unmistakable: The more time teens spend looking at screens, the more likely they are to report symptoms of depression. Eighth-graders who are heavy users of social media increase their risk of depression by 27 percent, while those who play sports, go to religious services, or even do homework more than the average teen cut their risk significantly.

Teens who spend three hours a day or more on electronic devices are 35 percent more likely to have a risk factor for suicide, such as making a suicide plan. (That’s much more than the risk related to, say, watching TV.) One piece of data that indirectly but stunningly captures kids’ growing isolation, for good and for bad: Since 2007, the homicide rate among teens has declined, but the suicide rate has increased. As teens have started spending less time together, they have become less likely to kill one another, and more likely to kill themselves. In 2011, for the first time in 24 years, the teen suicide rate was higher than the teen homicide rate.
So, the new Minister of Health will be thrilled.  He has been given the silver bullet.  All he has to do is put an age limit on cell phone use--like driving.  If he were to ban cell phone use to anyone under eighteen, overnight the mental health of teenagers would improve and the youth suicide rate would sharply decline.

Except that it wouldn't.  And we all know why.  Smart phones come with parents (or adult caregivers) attached.  If our teenagers are forging their social relationships via smart phones, Facebook, and the like, their parents have already failed them.  Their children are as vulnerable as they would be if those same parents tossed a set of car keys to their ten year olds and said, "Go for it, kiddo."

Go figure, Dr Clark.  The ball is very definitely in your court.

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