Some websites are doing real harm to a generation, according to a leading child psychotherapist
Child psychotherapist Julie Lynn Evans says the internet, particularly online chatrooms, can be dangerous for children and teenagers Photo: Frances Leader
As one of the country’s foremost child psychotherapists, Julie Lynn Evans thought she had heard long every parental nightmare. But last week, after reading the tragic story of 15-year-old Tallulah Wilson, who killed herself after visiting websites about self-harm and anorexia, she found herself in tears.
Her clients include three young people who have attempted suicide. They come to her stylish sitting room in west London and, in front of a roaring fire, lay bare their demons. What has become apparent to Evans during the sessions is that these desperate children have been tipped over the edge by things they have seen on the internet.
“When I read about poor Tallulah, the suicidal messages she left on Twitter, the history of using these chatrooms, it made me burst in to tears,” she says. “I am seeing this, day in day out. I thought as I was reading, ‘It could have been any of the kids in my care, but for the grace of God.’ ”
She says the internet revolution is having a profound effect on our children, taking many to a dark world that is doing them untold harm.
“It is the worst cohort of badly behaved kids I have seen in 25 years of work, and I’m absolutely convinced that the internet has a lot to do with it. It makes any problem more urgent, more dramatic. Parents are having a hell of a time. It is not that they have been remiss and stupid, they just didn’t know what was coming. None of us did.”
The parallels between Tallulah Wilson, found dead on the tracks at St Pancras station in London after being hit by a train, and the children Evans is treating are chilling.
On the face of it, the 15-year-old, described as “clever, cheerful and creative”, who lived in a £1 million house and attended an £11,000-a-year private school, had every advantage. But since her death, it emerged that she was bullied and plagued by self-doubt. A message left on Twitter before she died read: “I will never be beautiful and skinny.”
The case, which has led to calls for websites promoting anorexia and self-harm to be banned, comes just four months after schoolgirl Rosie Whitaker threw herself under a train in Kent, after visiting pro-anorexia sites.
Evans is on a mission to wake parents up to the dangers, and she has been here before. She was in the vanguard of the crusade against skunk – a potent strain of cannabis that can cause psychosis – and counselled the family of Julie Myerson, the novelist whose Oxbridge-destined son Jake became addicted. Her efforts to expose the drug’s impact on teenagers led to research confirming its dangers and a well-publicised campaign to educate children and the wider public.
Now, she is focusing on the internet and what she finds will form the basis of a book, due out next year. In her research, Evans has entered the often-murky world of internet chatrooms to understand the messages that teenagers are exposed to for hours on end.
Many are easy to access. Others are more underground, but present little difficulty for a determined, computer-savvy youngster. What Evans found appalled her.
“The misery in those chatrooms is overwhelming and heart-rending – the sheer weight of it,” she says. “Teenagers haven’t got anybody with a good, strong sense of self-worth to protect them when they are in there. The chatrooms become their reality.
“The anorexia ones are in some ways the most dangerous. Some of the images and conversations are terrifying. You are a success if your Body Mass Index is 14, for instance – at that level your heart is being eaten up and you could die of a heart attack at any moment. Anorexia is the greatest cause of death of young girls. In these chat rooms, death is a triumph and they’ve got nobody to pull them back.”
One client, a 14-year-old girl, is being spurred on to greater feats of disordered eating by chatroom users who recommend “green tea and no food” for the perceived problem of a “fat back”. She is “absolutely categorical that to die would be to win”.
A posting last week on one of the most popular websites, Pro Ana Nation, from a young girl called Nicole reads: “I have an obsession with collar bones and getting a huge gap. I want to see bones. Feel them. I love going to bed hungry and waking up dizzy, that way I know it’s working. Not a second goes by where I don’t think about being ‘skinny’, perfect, I look at girls in public and I hate myself. My days are spent thinking of ways to hide food or exercise in secret.”
While the internet might not directly give children eating disorders, it is making the conditions harder to treat and making children more ill, according to Evans.
“In a counselling session I might get an agreement to compromise on certain types of dangerous behaviour, but then they go back to their chat room and the contributors say, ‘she doesn’t know what she is talking about,’ and I lose my power in a second – as do the parents.”
In the case of self-harm, the internet seems to be fuelling an explosion. While teenagers have always tried to shock the older generation, it is only with the advent of YouTube that they have been able to show the world in glorious technicolour the red gash and dripping blood on their arm or thigh after they have cut themselves with a razor blade.
NHS figures published last year show the extent of the problem. Hospital admissions for intentional self-harm have increased by nearly 10,000 – just over 10 per cent – in three years to 104,340.
“What the chat rooms are doing is teaching people how to do it and somehow making it OK. Teenagers are telling each other how to hide the scabs, what medicine to use on them, how to avoid the marks. It creates the feeling that they are all in it together,” says Evans.
Some of the children she is treating have attempted suicide, one after she was subjected to verbal attacks on Facebook; another who photographed her near-naked body and sent it to a boy she liked – who then sent it all around school; and another who was branded “ugly” in a chatroom. They are all from middle-class families.“It is everybody’s kids,” says Evans. “If it is not happening in your household – and if you have three kids, you will be lucky if you escape all of it – it will be happening to your friends. Wherever I go, I’m asked, ‘What do I do?’
“Boys who find internet gaming, with its creativity and excitement, more interesting than other aspects for their lives, such as doing chores or homework, are the norm, not the exception.
“I don’t want to generalise – not all children are at risk and not all parents are unaware – but quite a lot of children are at risk and quite a lot of parents are unaware.”
While Evans supports moves to restrict access – including the proposal to require an “opt-in” to access hard-core porn and other sites – she believes responsibility lies with parents.
“It has to be an integral part of our parenting – like how children do their homework, what curfews they are set, and how they brush their teeth. It is not up to the Government or the people making the software; it is up to us to be responsible.”
Part of that is knowing what your children are looking at on the web. Internet privacy for children is dangerous according to Evans. “An awful lot of people say they don’t want to go in to their child’s Facebook account because they don’t want to invade their privacy. I think children have a right to privacy and their own space, and I also think they have a right and a vital need to use the internet.
But I don’t think they have a right to privacy on the internet.”
Evans is fulsome in her praise of the positive aspects of the internet. She loves games and plays them herself. She thinks social networking sites can be brilliant, particularly for children with autism, dyslexia and dyspraxia, who can struggle to form friendships.
But the longer-term impact of the internet is only just coming to light. “This is so new and so huge. We just don’t know what we are dealing with yet,” she says.
“Teenagers have always been difficult and often unhappy, but it used to be private. When they did turn to someone, it was generally somebody older.
“Now if you don’t like what you are feeling, you go on the internet and everybody else is feeling it, too. And then it can snowball in to something very dark and very dangerous.”
(By Julie Henry) – Courtesy: The Telegraphs