Depression, child-rearing in the 21st century

MORE than 100 academics, teachers, psychologists, children’s authors and other experts yesterday called for a major public debate on child-rearing in the 21st century. The escalating incidence of childhood depression is caused, they suggested, by a lack of understanding, by both politicians and public, of the realities and subtleties of child development.

Exposed as never before to iconimagery, txt spk, 24-hour TV and targeted marketing, especially of dubious food products, where are children to go? What happens to the senses and the imagination? Does the fast, technology-driven and competitive world really suit a fragile, developing mind? The letter, published in the Daily Telegraph, was instigated by former head teacher Sue Palmer (author of the book Toxic Childhood) and Dr Richard House of Roehampton University: signatories included Baroness Susan Greenfield, director of the Royal Institute, children’s authors Jacqueline Wilson, Anne Fine, Philip Pullman and Michael Morpurgo, childcare expert Penelope Leach, nutritionist Patrick Holford and environment guru Jonathon Porritt. They wrote: “Since children’s brains are still developing, they cannot adjust to the effects of ever more rapid technological and cultural change. They still need what developing human beings have always needed, including real food (as opposed to processed ‘junk’), real play (as opposed to sedentary, screen-based entertainment), first-hand experience of the world they live in and regular interaction with the real-life significant adults in their lives. They also need time. Today’s children are expected to cope with an ever earlier start to formal schoolwork and an overly academic, test-driven primary curriculum.”

Palmer cited research by Michael Shayer at Kings College, London, which showed that 11-year-olds measured in cognitive tests were “between two and three years behind where they were 15 years ago”. Childhood is not a race, she said; and its physical and psychological growth cannot be accelerated. Some of the areas of concern in the letter are on the Government agenda in Scotland and, in a general response to the issues raised, the Scottish Executive points out that its policy document, Vision for Children and Young People, promotes ambition, learning, confidence, responsible citizenship and effective contributing. A spokesperson says: “The Executive aims to support parents to fulfil their role and we also seek to create a positive environment for children in areas such as provision of leisure opportunities, open space. In 2005 the Executive developed Children and Young People’s Mental Health: A Framework for Promotion, Prevention and Care to assist local health, education and social services in delivering integrated approaches to young people’s mental health and wellbeing.”

In response to the criticism that high educational expectations are being placed on children at too young an age, the spokesman: “The Curriculum Framework for children aged three to five already recognises the powerful contribution that play makes to children’s learning, and we plan to extend approach into primary [education].” The Executive is also working on turning around Scotland’s eating habits and health. “We want to establish healthy lifestyles as early as possible. Strategies to improve the health of children and young people are already being successfully implemented across Scotland, and to build on this momentum we introduced the Schools (Health Promotion and Nutrition) (Scotland) Bill on 8 September. Among other measures, it will ensure food and drink served in schools meets tough nutritional standards.”

The Executive’s claim that it has been successful in tackling childhood obesity and bad eating habits is harder to swallow, however. An independent report published yesterday states that, despite spending 100 million in ten years on the problem, Scots are eating even less fresh fruit and veg than a decade ago. Although the Executive claims to be addressing many of the concerns raised in the open letter, there is still patently much work to be done.

Parental relationships are the real problem

CONSULTANT psychiatrist at the Maudsley Hospital and Gresham professor for public understanding of psychiatry, Raj Persaud is critical of the letter which, he says, plays on middle-class anxieties. “CHILDHOOD depression is on the up, but I disagree with the letter’s view of the causes. There’s a basic flaw in the reasoning: if a factor is widespread in society – such as junk food and electronic games – then how come large numbers of children don’t get depressed? They may not be the best things for our children, but it doesn’t mean they cause clinical depression.

Rising rates of depression are a problem, but the majority of children are not [afflicted]. This letter tries to lay the blame on various themes, all things that middle-class parents are worried about, but it allows parents to escape the responsibility for their child’s mental health. Factors that are definitely linked to childhood depression are rising rates of drug and alcohol abuse: children have more pocket money and are choosing to spend it in this way. People are also having sex at a younger age, and we have the highest rates of teenage pregnancy, often followed by termination, in Europe. I’m much more concerned about how this affects mental health.

Lower levels of parental surveillance can be a factor. I’m not against childcare for working parents, but the quality of that childcare is important, as is the quality of a child’s relationship with its parents (something that the letter does promote). There is evidence to suggest that the IQ of children has been going up each generation for the past 40 years, and this during the digital age. Expose a child to a faster information stream, and it could actually increase its IQ. A junk-food-eating, electronic-game-playing teenager can actually be quick and bright – and not at all depressed. It’s easier to blame electronic games, TV and junk food than to examine the more uncomfortable but realistic truths closer to home.

One danger is leaving children to it, the TV or computer being a convenient place to dump them


ALTHOUGH not a signatory to the letter, children’s author Julia Donaldson (who wrote The Gruffalo) has some sympathy with its basic call for greater awareness and a full debate. “IT SEEMS to me the letter lumps a lot of things together that are not necessarily related, except under the umbrella of ‘modern life’, so it’s not very focused – I’d have wanted to re-word it.

But I do agree that the most important aspect of a child’s development is the quality of its relationships with parents and others. I also agree that children need real play, and have felt for a long time that TV is sometimes used as a substitute for this. In the days before we had DVD players, 24-hour schedules and dedicated children’s channels, TV programs for youngsters would only come on at a certain time of day, so for a play leader there couldn’t be any choice – at other times you had to play. Now it can be on all the time, and there may be lots of good programs, but it’s unremitting, and probably isn’t great for your physical health, let alone mental state, being able to sit in front of a screen for so much longer.

A good relationship between parent and child can certainly be fostered by reading together, but equally by looking at pictures together. It’s the sharing that is the point, and an awareness, on the part of the parent, of what is in the child’s mind. I call it ‘active sharing’, and it can give you many points of reference in common that contribute to a high-quality relationship. “I fell down, just like Jack and Jill,” for example. One of the dangers is in just leaving children to it, the TV or computer being a convenient place to dump them – then parents get out of touch. Children’s channels are not selective either; at least with a book or DVD you can control what they’re seeing or reading, and I don’t think there’s really anything intrinsically bad about the best of film, TV or computer games.

I agree that secondary schools are too test-driven, and that pre-teen ‘mini-adults’ are awful. But there are other factors, surely, that affect children’s mental health: an unhappy home can have an effect; or two absentee parents; or a favorite child-minder who leaves. You could argue that more choice makes children more adaptable; it does mean that books have to compete harder for attention – but I still think that nothing can beat a good book, and it is totally the best entertainment there is. You can enter another world; and to my mind film can’t quite compete.”

We just don’t know the effects of computers


DISTINGUISHED neuroscientist Baroness Susan Greenfield, author of Tomorrow’s People, instigated a debate in the House of Lords in April on the impact of the screen on the developing brain. She had no hesitation in signing Sue Palmer’s letter when it arrived on her desk. “A LOT of research has been done into the effects of, say, cannabis or Ritalin or fish oils and we now know all about Turkey Twizzlers. But there’s been a lot less [research into] computer-screen culture. We don’t know how an average of six hours a day in front of a computer screen may be affecting the developing brain, especially compared with previous generations.

For example, computer-screen icons could be detracting from abstract ideas such as democracy or love, and it may be that we’re breeding children to think literally and not in the abstract. It’s a gratifying, easy-sensation, ‘yuk-and-wow’ environment, which doesn’t require a young mind to work. It’s good [for a child] to be bored, because boredom empowers the imagination. If you are overpowered by limitless information, you are not in control. In the future, we could find ourselves so sanitized by screen culture that the notion of a real-time, real-life conversation, complete with body language, becomes as alien as hunting for food would be to us now.

I’m not saying we should smash up our computers. But there are grounds for concern, and we shouldn’t be complacent. It would be helpful if the Department for Education and Skills commissioned research to discover just how vulnerable and sensitive to inputs a child’s brain might be. We need to be aware we cannot park our children in front of the TV and expect them to develop a long attention span.”

If we don’t change our food culture now, by 2020 we will be in an intolerable position


  NUTRITIONIST Patrick Holford, the chief executive of the Food for the Brain Foundation, and author of Optimum Nutrition for your Child’s Mind, is leading a new schools campaign to show the positive impact of good nutrition on mental and physical health. Parents can go to to get a personalized report for their child, and tips on how to improve: 15,000 have done so already. “THERE is an epidemic of mental-health problems among children. One in three has difficulty with learning, reading, writing or attention, and children with special educational needs now number one in six. Some 250 million children worldwide are on stimulant drugs such as Ritalin; and last year 250 million prescriptions for anti-depressants for children were issued. If we don’t act now to change food culture, by 2020 we’ll be looking at an intolerable position for society. “On the one hand we still don’t have enough evidence, and need more studies on the effects of sugar and fats. On the other, controlled trials have shown that the non-verbal IQ goes up with increased vitamins and minerals; children with hyperactivity problems respond to a low glycaemic-load diet, keeping their blood sugar even; and autistic children are almost all allergic either to wheat, milk or both. “We have done studies which correlate sugar and caffeine to mental health. A child who drinks a two litre bottle of cola ingests the equivalent of 45 spoons of sugar and five espressos – and I frequently meet people who do this every day. We need to change the culture: don’t give sweets as rewards or treats. Surround healthy food with positive messages. Take away the dependence on high-sugar foods. Make bad food less attractive. “Do we want to wait ten years or do something now? Our Food for the Brain Foundation has started a schools campaign, and we have good results after four months in a school of severe special-needs children, where we held workshops for parents and radically changed the diets, adding vitamin, mineral and essential fat supplements. The children have responded phenomenally well – they are now telling their parents what’s good to eat and what’s not. We’d like to extend it.

I’d also like to see the Government’s current healthy eating guidelines go even further. Children who have fish three times a week do better than those who have it twice; they in turn do better than those who only have it once. I’d even advocate a tax on sugar. “There is also an exercise system we use, SAQ (Speed, Agility, Quickness), practiced also by Arsenal football club, which teaches co-ordination and balance; it particularly helps dyspraxic children, and encourages them to want to do sport – obviously one way to combat the threat of childhood obesity. Once 50,000 people have used our online questionnaire, we’re going to see which foods relate to which symptoms. It’s never been done before.”