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Wednesday 22 May 2019
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In celebration of World Mental Health Day


“YOUNG PEOPLE and Mental Health in a Changing World” is the theme for World Mental Health Day today. A few weeks ago I was sitting in a friend’s living room in Kingsbury, London, taking a respite, before heading to a conference in Italy, and doing what I enjoy doing – reading local newspapers.

It was the Daily Mail of September 15, and when I see a headline in very bold, huge type spread across pages 8 and 9, I pay attention. The headline read “Smashing my sons’ iPads is the best thing I’ve ever done for them.” Kirstie Allsop, who is described as “the TV property queen,” gave her rationale for doing this. She had threatened many times but never did, until that day. What happened?

Her sons Bay and Oscar are 12 and ten years old. Kirstie and Ben spent a lot of time turning their home into “a nirvana for adventurous children.” All they wanted to do is for their children “to enjoy the freedom that comes with being outdoors as often as possible.” After all it was the summer holidays. Kirstie believed “that children must be allowed to experience risk.”

They had access to motorbikes, knives, swords, axes and tools from Ben’s workshop. There is “a river that runs through the garden and a towering tree house. The boys are allowed to roam completely free. The only rules are that they must not go to the village shop in their pyjamas, and that iPads are only for use between when they awake – which is getting later and later – and 9 am.”

Actually, she had taken the iPads away from them four times that day and cursed herself for not hiding them where they could not find them. It was a perfect Sunday evening and she thought her sons would be swimming in the river, or making a dirt bike ramp. “No, they were inside the study, glued to a computer battle game on their iPads.” She ordered them to get off the iPads and go outside.

According to these two parents, they decided that it was a perfect evening for a picnic and swim at their favourite beach. Kirstie went to look for them to “tell them the plan, but guess what? Yes, they were still in the study playing with their iPads. They dropped them like hot potatoes” when Kirstie walked in. “But enough was enough.”

She “picked one up and knocked it against the metal leg of the coffee table. The screen cracked in numerous places.” She did the same to the second one. She said there was no shouting nor did she lose her temper. “The boys looked on absolutely horrified.”

She said she had warned them many times that if they went on sneaking off with the iPads that this would happen.” There was some silence after the sound of the iPads breaking, then “the tears started. ‘How could you?’ They asked ‘Why? We never thought you would actually do it.’”

Kirstie is a mom who, before putting the boys to sleep, discusses the events of the day and anything that worries them. “That night, Oscar lay in bed with big fat tears pouring down his face. ‘You are supposed to be in charge of everything that makes me happy, how could you do that?’” Kirstie was heartbroken and began to cry too.

This is what Kirstie wrote: “I explained that nothing good could come out of staying indoors playing computer games. That as long as the games were available, they would always trump outdoor adventures and that reading books, which is so vitally important for doing well at school, would always be second choice. I explained that if they play with screens instead of people, they can’t learn about human emotions.”

She said that their favourite computer games were PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, an online battle game that sees players scavenge for weapons to kill each other with, and Fortnite, the gun-based game that proved wildly addictive among children – which will never teach them anything they need to have for a happy and productive life.

She went on to explain to them that it was her “job to protect them and to help them to develop all the skills needed for the wider world.” Here are some other issues she spoke with her boys about that night:

* The children they know and have lost out as a result of playing too many computer games.

* She told them she was scared of tablets and iPhones, and that her work shows her what happens to people who “lead a life in front of screens and not in the real world.” She was honest.

* The impact these games have on boys, and the men who spend so much time on social media that they are terrified of human interaction.

As expected “the boys went through different stages of grief, anger and shock. Kirstie herself felt very guilty and wondered if she had traumatised her sons for life. However, she called the children’s nanny and told her what she had done. This was the nanny’s response: “It’s about time. I’m surprised it took so long. They’ve been pushing their luck for ages.”

This was the first of many positive responses that Kirstie got after her story became public. Of course there were those who did not support her. Negative feedback was from people who were “horrified by the idea of anyone challenging their freedom to play games.”

Kirstie described what was happening in her home as “someone coming into my home and messing with our family.” She said: “Quite simply, the games are designed to keep you hooked.”

I firmly believe that if we are to make this year’s theme for World Mental Health Day mean something, parents have to make some decisions about their children’s relationship in this changing world. Do we let the changing world take control of our children, or do we give our children the skills to control this changing world? The picture which accompanied the article in the Daily Mail showed two happy, smiling male children playfully posing for the camera with a happy, smiling mummy.

For those who wish, maybe you can find this article online; there is a whole lot more to it. Seeing the picture is believing that her parenting strategies are working.

Anna Maria Mora is a counselling psychologist


Anna Maria Mora

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