A primary school teacher told me last week that some 5 years olds in her class are struggling to learn basic pronunciation. When she started teaching twenty years ago, most of this age group quickly mastered basic speech sounds, essential to learning to read and write. But today some kids in reception can’t differentiate between t, f and v (the ‘tuh‘, ‘fuh’ and ‘vuh’ of the children’s alphabet) and it’s hampering their ability to learn. Why? Because kids learn sounds from their mum and dad, and parents glued to their smartphones from morning till night results in less eye contact with their children, less talking, less reading aloud. So, she now urges parents: ‘to get off your phones, talk to your kids, and read to them’. This is an anecdote but it says the same things as our latest report about the underlying causes of mental health among our young people (The Maker Generation).
The UK has a teenage mental health epidemic. Depression amongst teenagers has rocketed by 70% in the last 25 years, with a quarter of girls and one in ten boys becoming depressed as young as 14 years old. One third of 15-year-old girls are self-harming once a month, with growing numbers hospitalised, having cut themselves with knives and razor blades. Post-millennials are pessimistic about the state of the world with 1/3 of all young people saying they would rather have grown up when their parents did. Our report says they are growing up without a clear function except participation in formal academic education. Generation Z do a lot less drugs, drinking and crime than teenagers 25 years ago but they face a new set of risks resulting from deteriorating mental health. Most worrying is the huge rise of suicide among girls and young women aged 10-25 years, up 19% in just three years (2012-2015).
The Times has just reported on how anti- depressant drugs are being liberally prescribed despite scant evidence that they are helping the problem. There is some evidence it makes it worse. Mental health problems are missed more in this age group than any other. There are several causes: anxiety about the world and future prosperity compared to their parents; pressures from social media and changes in family structures.
There is a clear link between heavy internet and social media usage and teenagers experiencing isolation and loneliness. Our report concludes that online networks are no alternative for face to face social interaction and shared family activities. This is sometimes difficult for adults to grasp but social media can fuel a craving for attention where kids validate themselves based on the number of likes on their last selfie, encouraged by the algorithm. Apparently, a score below 120 is a fail. This is not a satisfying way to spend your teens.
There is good news though too.
Firstly, there are easy and common- sense solutions. Look at the progress made in Iceland where the percentage of teenagers who often or always spent time with their parents, doubled over a ten-year period to 2007, resulting in a significant reduction in depression and substance abuse. The introduction of a simple leisure card containing approximately £250 of free vouchers per year for each family, successfully encouraged families to spend more time together, and less time on their own, online or drunk. It kept teenagers out of trouble and reduced risky and self- destructive behaviour.
Secondly, Generation Z display many fine qualities and skills. They are generous, caring and have a sense of purpose. They have become the generation most likely to volunteer for a good cause. They seek work that makes a positive impact, preferring purpose over salary. They possess the skills to make and explain the ‘great acceleration’ of the internet age, to us all. Our report calls them the ‘maker generation’ because our young people are the makers, hackers, inventors and entrepreneurs to ensure our society prospers in the 21st century. Automation will replace as much as one third of processing and sorting jobs over the next decades, but the technological revolution will also create many more skilled jobs that require human creativity, innovation and free thinking.
Parents and adults can and should help this generation fulfil their potential. They are an exceptional generation and the makers of the future, but we need to free them of mental health issues to enable them to make it.
Philippa Stroud is CEO of Legatum Institute
‘The Maker Generation. Post-Millennials and the future they are fashioning’ is published today