One of the world’s foremost authorities on child mental health today warns that technology is threatening child development by disrupting the crucial learning relationship between adults and children.
Peter Fonagy, professor of Contemporary Psychoanalysis and Developmental Science at UCL, who has published more than 500 scientific papers and 19 books, warns that the digital world is reducing contact time between the generations – a development with potentially damaging consequences.
Fonagy, the chief executive of the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families – a mental health charity – has spent more than half a century studying child development. He says that emotional disorders among young women aged 14 to 19 have become “very much more common”, while A&E admissions for self harm have increased massively. More recently he has also become concerned about a spike in violence among boys.
An enthusiast for how technology can help people with mental health issuesaccess resources and get help, Fonagy – who also advises the Department of Health and the NHS – said the advent of smartphones and social media nevertheless meant that today’s environment is now far more complex for young people to negotiate.
“My impression is that young people have less face-to-face contact with older people than they once used to. The socialising agent for a young person is another young person, and that’s not what the brain is designed for.
“It is designed for a young person to be socialised and supported in their development by an older person. Families have fewer meals together as people spend more time with friends on the internet. The digital is not so much the problem – it’s what the digital pushes out.”
Fonagy said that the looser connection between children and adults had been happening since the second world war, but the shift had become more pronounced in recent years.
Today’s society, he said, puts more responsibility on children to determine their future on their own without giving them the necessary support to make crucial decisions about their lives.
“We tell them to get into a good university or their life is hardly worth living. We tell them, ‘it’s all up to you’. But we’re not giving them a choice. We’re not saying ‘let’s look at a number of career choices you could have or what would you enjoy’. It’s a difficult time for kids. We don’t appreciate it as much as we should. We should equip them better to be more resilient to the environment that they are under.”
Fonagy, 66, is a supporter of the government’s decision to introduce a minimum age limit for accessing internet pornography, which he fears is already having an impact on children’s development.
“Kids now are less promiscuous than they used to be. It puts them off, exposure to pornography, and it’s worrying because it will affect birth rates.”