25th November, 2019 | Queen Elizabeth II Centre
25th November, 2019 | Queen Elizabeth II Centre

Dr Aric Sigman Speaks to TCH About Children’s Mental Health

Dr. Aric Sigman is a child health education lecturer and author of a number of books including Alcohol Nation, The Body Wars and The Spoilt Generation. He consults for parliamentary working groups, speaks at international conferences and is frequently invited to offer his opinion on the mental health of children on TV and radio and in the national press.

Dr. Sigman has kindly offered to answer some questions for This Can Happen. This is recommended reading for anyone who is a parent, carer, teacher or has an interest in the future of our world. The next generation of leaders may need our help to overcome obstacles they face daily.

TCH: Does alcohol play a major role in the mental health of teenagers?

AS: Most teenage mental health problems are unlikely to be caused solely by alcohol. However, alcohol misuse – especially ‘binge drinking’ is now believed to put teenagers’ mental health at risk. Teenagers who drink high amounts of alcohol are vulnerable to increased risk of developing a mental health problem such as depression and alcohol can be a contributing factor to some mental health problems and can also make existing mental health problems worse. New evidence finds that teenage binge drinking disrupts the neuroimmune system leading to brain cell damage which can affect brain function and mental state. Regular drinking alters brain chemistry for example by decreasing the levels of the brain chemical serotonin – a highly important chemical in depression. As a result of this reduction, a pattern can begin begins where  a teenager drinks to relieve depression, which causes a drop in serotonin levels causing them to  feel even more depressed, and a cycle begins.

TCH: Have body image pressures evolved over time, or have many young people always been troubled by their appearance?

AS: When children reach puberty they often become more self-conscious about their appearance. However, we’ve recently witnessed an unprecedented rise in body dissatisfaction. Initially it was girls that concerned us, however boys are increasingly showing signs of body dissatisfaction and developing problems such as muscle dysmorphia where they wrongly believe their body is too skinny and lacking muscles when in fact they often have a normal body shape or may even be quite muscular already. Body dissatisfaction raises the risk of some children developing eating disorders or muscle dysmorphia. In an increasingly complicated and fast changing world, children may focus on their own bodies as something they hope to have control over, and they may unknowingly express difficult unarticulated emotions through concerns over their bodies. Mental health professionals increasingly believe that the rise in photo and video based media – particularly social media – has at the very least exacerbated these problems and in some cases may have caused the problem. No previous generation has ever seen so many idealised images on a daily basis.

TCH: Do you have any top tips for managing screen time, especially social media?

AS: There is good evidence that children’s discretionary (non-homework) screen time (DST) can be reduced through parental measures.

  • Parents must have a view on children’s excessive screen use and establish some limits and boundaries. Talk to your children about DST being an important health and development issue.
  • Where possible, encourage no screens in children’s bedrooms
  • Parents should be encouraged to monitor and control the time their children spend on hand-held computer games/media/Smartphones with justification that DST is now officially a health and development issue not merely a lifestyle/cultural one
  • Parents should be aware of the role modelling influence their own viewing habits may have on their children
  • Have screen-free dinners
  • Get an app to turn off various children’s WiFi access at certain times of night
  • Ensure children have at least an hour’s gap with no DST before bed time. (Reading books on a Kindle paper white is fine.)