Is it children´s responsibility to defend themselves in the digital arena

Since the 1980s, self-reported mental health issues among young people has steadily increased, in particular among young girls in grades 7 and 9, with a sharp increase in 2014 (WHO) – anxiety, fatigue, anti-social behavior, eating disorders and other self-destructive behaviors have been reported.

Changes in social and family structures require adequate supportive services. Particularly at risk are those who live with one parent (26%), students with a foreign background and young people with a non-theoretical study orientation. In each class an average of 1-2 students are mobbed – the educational company Learnox who works with children absent from school estimates that 10,000 primary school students may have totally stopped even trying to go to school. International research provides a clear message about the importance of linking questions about school, learning and mental health.

According to Child Wise ”The Connected Kids report in 2015” children 5-16 years old spend an average of 6.5 leisure hours/day in front of a screen or other monitor (teenagers spend 8 hours).

In the world’s fastest-selling entertainment product – the ultraviolent game GTA 5, the players commit ”first person” serious crimes such as racism, torture and violent sexual assault under criminal gang structures. Swedish media Council Mediarådet’s latest report from 2015 shows that 8% of Swedish boys aged 9-12 and 23% 13-16 year olds (of which 7% are girls in spite of the fact that their characters are often highly sexualized) play GTA 5.

Neuroscientists, pediatricians and psychologists all believe that how, for what purpose and to what extent we use our screen time in a balance to access to other activities and role models affect a child’s mental and physical health. Gaming and social media usage continues to increase and takes up a child’s time on the way to school, during breaks, class time, recreational time, on the way home again, at home before the parents come home from work and even after the parents come home when they should instead devote time to homework and other recreational activities or sleep. In the world of multi-tasking, with constantly connected smart phones, a large percentage of the brain’s capacity is used to make choices instead of actual problem solving (according to the latest brain research).

In social forums children worry whether or not the people behind the profiles are those they claim to be and of their possible intentions. Virtual worlds are becoming more violent, both in language and action. Violence purely for the sake of entertainment in GTA 5 can for example be that a bored person throws something at an elderly woman’s face, for no reason whatsoever, with no consequences and is even rewarded for that action. According to research this forces the part of the brain controlled by fear to be more and more in overdrive to scan potential threats, at the expense of the intellectual part of the brain, when the choices are limited to flight or fight. In the long run, we react either with excessive worry or we simply shut down.

Children and young people have always processed impressions through play but when it comes to TV and computer games, it is as if they are not expected to express the experiences and values conveyed through the digital world, sometimes with an unfamiliar adult, sometimes with a parent who himself grew up in the violent digital world. The ultra-violent game GTA 5, for example, was the best-selling game in Europe in 2014, the third most sold in Sweden 2014 and 2015 and has in two years sold in more than 54 million copies. It continues to top sales and download lists. It is just one of the many games that start innocent, that players can do incredible things with but which gradually develops a more and more violent context in order to reach new levels and worlds.

According to the Media Council Mediarådet´s report in 2012, a majority of parents surveyed find child protection on the internet unsatisfactory. Parents want to protect their children against the growing pornography that creeps down through the ages, threats and depictions of sexual abuse and horror. Most critical is how the protection is working when it comes to computer games. There is a relative satisfaction when it comes to television and DVD, with the most satisfaction on cinema censorship.

In England and Germany, authorities are continuously auditing all types of media, while Sweden in 2011 chose to scrap the censorship model that existed, siting that ”a fraction of all films were seen by the public and that the review therefore no longer served its purpose”. Different versions of the games are released to fit different countries censorship laws. England and Germany have introduced a statutory age limit of 18 years for this type of game, while Sweden has chosen to let the computer industry itself manage even this regulation. The gaming industry in Sweden has no censorship – shops themselves choose what they want to bring in, and decide if they want to sell to minors or not, since recommendations are not legally regulated. Protests are met with statements that is in not considered proven that violent games make kids violent. The position is that it is each parent’s individual responsibility to regulate what the child should or should not see. Note that this approach does not apply to the cinema where the regulated maximum age limit of 15 years still applies, in accordance with the constitutional ban on ”undue violence spreading among children,” based on the research available regarding what is considered to have a detrimental effect.

When it comes to the protection of children in school, it is up to the headmasters and individual teachers to have the energy to pursue this matter. The response is often the same as when reports first presented about the harmful effects of smoking were adamantly rejected by experts at the American Institute of Health (NIH).

The argument ”that there is insufficient scientific evidence to give advice to parents about how violent video games affect children or how much time children can spend in front of the screen without being adversely affected, should be accompanied by the precautionary principle, until further reports by experienced pediatricians, psychologists and brain researchers state otherwise”.

How to succeed in school is the most important factor for children and young people, and is crucial to their wellbeing and mental health. In 2014, 22.6% failed to complete primary school and 29.5% did not pass the high school exams. A good learning platform is an environment where students feel safe. There is plenty of room to develop positive relationships and students with social skills and knowledge to enable them to be a vital part of society. That includes also supporting environment for break and leisure activities, not just minute breaks.

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SPEAKER PECHA KUCHA GÖTEBORG:
Conversations and Strategies for youth health