One of the world's leading authorities on children's mental health today warns that technology is threatening child development by breaking the crucial learning relationship between adults and children.
Peter Fonagy, professor of contemporary psychoanalysis and development sciences at UCL, which has published more than 500 scientific articles and 19 books, warns that the digital world is reducing contact time between generations, a development with potentially harmful consequences .
Fonagy, the managing director of the Anna Freud National Center for Children and Families – a charity for mental health – has devoted more than half a century to the study of child development. He says that emotional disturbances among young women between the ages of 14 and 19 have become "much more common", while the admissions of A&E for self-harm have increased massively. More recently he has also been concerned about a spike in violence among boys.
A fan of how technology can help people with mental health problems access resources and get help, Fonagy – who also advises the Department of Health and the National Health Service – said the advent of smartphones and social networks media has however made the current environment much more complex for young people to negotiate.
"My impression is that young people have less face-to-face contact with older people than before. The socializing agent for a young person is another young person, and that's not what the brain is designed for.
"It is designed to allow a young person to be socialized and supported in his development by an elderly person. Families consume less meals while people spend more time with friends on the Internet. Digital is not so much the problem: it is what drives the digital ".
Fonagy said that the clearest connection between children and adults has occurred since the Second World War, but the change has become more pronounced in recent years.
Today's society, he said, places more responsibility on children to determine their future on their own without giving them the support they need to make crucial decisions about their lives.
"We tell them to enter a good university or their life is not worth living. We tell them:" it all depends on you ". But we are not giving them a choice. We are not saying & # 39; we look at a number of career choices you might have or what you'd like. It's a difficult time for children. We don't appreciate it as much as we should. We should equip them better to be more resilient in the environment they are under. "
Fonagy, 66, is a supporter of the government's decision to introduce a minimum age limit to access pornography on the Internet, which it fears already has an impact on children's development.
"Children are less promiscuous than before. They expel them, the exposure to pornography, and it is worrying because it will affect birth rates."