Mental-health wise, too many kids are not OK

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This year’s viral season overwhelmed Canada’s children’s hospitals. A nasty triple-whammy of flu, RSV and COVID tested the limits of our emergency rooms and the entire pediatric health system.Viruses got the headlines. But another, parallel crisis that’s played out in slow motion for nearly three years is also behind the increased numbers of emergency visits: the mental health of our children and youth. To put it mildly, too many kids are not OK.A few months into the pandemic, clinicians at CHEO, Ottawa’s pediatric health and research centre, noticed an alarming trend — a surge of teens with seriously escalating eating disorders.  Desperate young people and their families came to us needing urgent medical attention including dangerously low heart rates and an inability to eat. Dozens of kids needed to be admitted and put on feeding tubes to keep them alive. As the pandemic wore on, things got worse. Hundreds of kids needed urgent help each month.By July 2021, CHEO had 24 eating disorder in-patients but only six beds on that unit. We had to put them next to kids with cancer. Or kids who’d just had surgery. Anywhere we could find a bed. Some were so ill they were admitted to intensive care. Remember — these are children whose mental states were so unstable they struggled to eat. Rates doubled those of pre-pandemic days. The gravity of the cases got worse. Children’s hospitals across Canada and around the world reported similar spikes.  Parents and clinicians suspected social media was playing a role. As screen time soared in early 2020, so did the negative effects. Algorithm-fuelled body issues and tech-enabled bullying was rampant.We’ve learned since that Meta concealed evidence for years that confirms its products, Instagram and Facebook, can exacerbate eating disorders.CHEO experts have drawn clear links between the rise of mobile device and social media usage by kids and a 78 per cent increase in crisis visits and a doubling of self-harm incidents between 2009 and 2019. Wait-lists for outpatient mental-health care are at unprecedented levels.The current digital neighbourhood is not safe for young people. And it’s getting worse.We need to protect children and support their parents. It is laughable to think that a parental “no” can counterbalance a multi-trillion dollar industry using the most sophisticated technology to get inside your kid’s brain. And, as Parliament resumes, there is an important opportunity to do just that. (Paging honourable members of the Canadian Senate.)In December, the House of Commons voted in favour of something called Bill C-11. It’s an act to modernize broadcasting and internet rules and regulations, among other things reflects the advent of online streaming platforms such as YouTube, Spotify and Netflix. Canada’s privacy commissioner rightly says that when Senators take it up, sober second thought needs to be given to strengthening aspects of it. Senators should listen to the advice, particularly where it comes to allowing people to opt-out of social media platform algorithms, which control what people see online.It is already happening in Europe. And the privacy commissioner says a similar stance here could shield people, especially kids, from “negative reinforcement and adverse effects on the mental health of young people.” There are a number of things governments can and should do to ensure more accountability from tech giants and better research into the true extent of the harms social media have on young minds.It took decades, much suffering, needless loss, and enormous expense before governments found the courage to take on the tobacco industry to stop it from targeting teens.The well-being of kids is again at stake.Hopefully we’ve learned our lesson and lawmakers will be quicker to act.They have the power to help our kids live their best lives. We urge them to use it so kids can get the protection they deserve when venturing out online. If even one young life is saved or one family is spared a crisis visit to hospital, that will be a good day’s work in Parliament. Alex Munter is president and CEO of the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario.SHARE:

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