Mal Fletcher
Children Need Attention Not Addiction

Children need attention, not addiction.

According to news reports, UK prescriptions for "smart drugs" such as the stimulant Ritalin have doubled in a decade.

Some parents apparently use them to "medicate" children's behaviour.

According to the head of Ofsted, the organisation charged with inspecting schools, the fact that such drugs are applied by a growing number of parents feels like “a very big warning signal”.

Ritalin is methylphenidate and is often prescribed for children diagnosed with ADHD - attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

As its name suggests, this disorder often seems to leave children unable to control their behaviour. Its major symptoms include inattentiveness and impulsiveness.

Children with ADHD - most are diagnosed between the ages of six and 12 years - find it difficult to concentrate for any length of time. Some also have problems with sleep.

Methylphenidate belongs to a class of drugs known as stimulants. It has proven effective in increasing children’s ability to pay attention and organise tasks. It is useful in helping to control childhood behavioural problems.

However, the numbers of children being given the drug suggest that in seeking out medical advice, some parents apparently hope for an ADHD diagnosis. It will offer an explanation for what appears to be inexplicable behaviour. It will also likely mean a drug prescription.

Some psychiatrists feel that the use of drugs like Ritalin is overdone.

Hyperactivity in children manifests in many ways. Kids may find it hard to stay focused on a task, getting bored easily. They may appear not to be listening when others are speaking to them.

They may make careless mistakes and have difficulty remembering things. Some will become overly aggressive toward other people, seemingly without provocation.

All of these symptoms are perhaps most evident in the classroom. For some children and their parents, drugs such as Ritalin definitely offer a life-line.

There are behavioural problems which require chemical treatment. Drugs are sometimes an important part of treating a child’s difficulties. Parents need not feel that they are failing their children when that is the case.

However, there are times when symptoms of ADHD may also be exhibited for non-chemical reasons.

One of England’s leading psychologists noted a couple of years ago that we have increasing numbers of children exhibiting symptoms like irritability, anger and lack of focus because of an over-engagement with digital gadgets.

Children are learning to read screens better than they can read faces, he said.

Even when Ritalin is a valid option for treatment it can, like a great many drugs, produce over-dependency.

For children, this can lead not only to chemical addiction but to longer-term impacts on social development, because they have not developed other, more effective ways of coping.

For parents, drugs can provide a catch-all, convenient way of dealing with a range of difficult behavioural problems. In some cases, these problems may be related more to a lack of meaningful adult interaction than they are to any chemical deficiency.

Given the many pressures on medical professionals in our over-worked healthy system, it is not surprising to learn that drugs like Ritalin are probably over-prescribed.

Children’s workers with whom I’ve discussed these issues have shared anecdotes of youngsters who, though diagnosed with conditions like ADHD, have shown marked improvements in behaviour simply by spending quality time with an affirming and empathic adult.

There is no doubt that chemical solutions are sometimes required. However, some forms of hyperactivity are related more to a child’s feelings of neglect.

One of the great lessons of parenting is that every child is different. Two children living under the same roof can experience life in quite distinct ways. Their behaviour can develop in very different ways.

Most parents have at some point had to adapt their parenting style at least slightly to accommodate these differences. The differences can start out being relatively subtle but become quite marked over time, especially if they’re not addressed.

Spotting them as well as treating them requires time spent engaging in the world of the child; listening and trying to empathise.

Children cannot be engaged in a standardised, off-the-peg way. Certainly, the inherent human values we bring to parenting should not be compromised in the process of raising a child. Our core ethics will play a vital role in shaping his or her values over time.

However, the actual processes of parenting will need to be tweaked to take into account both the changing circumstances in the life of the child and their unique personality.  

That is part of the creative joy - and often the pain and uncertainty - of parenting.

I’ve worked with teenagers and young adults, on one level or another, for three decades and I’m constantly impressed by their ability to adapt to an often confusing world.

However, their adaptive powers are greatly impacted by the quality of individual care they have received as children.

Over the next two to three decades, automation will bring massive changes to almost every aspect of human life.

In recognition of this fact, Sony has a wing of its research facility in Japan devoted to the study of what it calls “Robot Anthropology”.

This discipline focusses on how engagement with robots will impact upon even the finest points of day-to-day human experience.

The challenges of underemployment aside, robotic machines will bring many benefits. Self-regulating and self-educating machines will be capable of performing many human activities - and out-performing us in surprising ways.

However, the one thing a machine cannot do is empathise, because by definition empathy requires a shared human experience.

Those of us who are fortunate enough to be parents, grandparents, teachers or child-carers might bear that in mind the next time we treat technology as a babysitter.

In time, no doubt, the significant advances currently underway in medical science - and the public’s growing awareness of mental health issues - will lead to the development of more efficacious drugs than we have today.

We will see new drugs which are able to treat particular symptoms in more focused ways. Treatments for mental health issues won’t be as broad-brush as they often are today.

However, children will never develop as they should without meaningful interaction with adults - and particularly their parents.



Mal Fletcher (@MalFletcher) is the founder and chairman of 2030Plus. He is a respected keynote speaker, social commentator and social futurist, author and broadcaster based in London.

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