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Israeli psychologist warns of ‘psychiatric pandemic’ among kids due to COVID policies

Addiction to screens and increase in anxiety, depression and risk of suicide are some results of lockdowns and online learning, psychologist says

First graders on the first day of the new academic year, Sep. 1, 2021. (Photo: Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

An Israeli clinical psychologist and research associate at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology is warning that measures taken by the Israeli government to fight the COVID-19 pandemic – repeated lockdowns, mandatory quarantines and the ensuing isolation – have caused a “psychiatric pandemic” among children and teenagers.

“Kids are at serious risk at the moment, and we have gone a step too far,” Yaakov Ophir told Haaretz. “Studies show a significant increase in additional pathologies: behavioral issues, difficulties with regulating emotions, up to actual psychiatric disturbances like anxiety, depression, and risk of suicide.”

Ophir, who specializes in psychopathology in the digital era, said based on what he sees in his clinic and elsewhere, “we are really putting our kids at risk.”

“Even if there hasn’t been, or isn’t an actual rise in cases of suicide, what the suffering kids and adolescents are experiencing is dramatic,” he said.

Ophir’s warnings are not new. A March 2021 study of around 1,000 parents of students in the Israeli education system concluded that Israeli children were going through a “mental crisis” with nearly half of the parents surveyed estimating that their children needed psychological help. 

The study, which was carried out by Professor Michal Grinstein-Weiss of Washington University and the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya together with Professor Rami Benvenisti of Hebrew University, showed that one in five children were suffering from symptoms of anxiety – an increase of 300% compared to pre-corona times. According to the study, 60% of parents said their children felt lonely, with less than half feeling able to maintain relations with their friends during lockdowns, mandatory quarantines and online schooling. At the same time, half the children surveyed were on their screens so much that it amounted to addiction, a fact that Ophir’s more recent research has confirmed.

According to a soon-to-be-published study jointly conducted by Ophir and a number of other researchers, the amount of time spent in front of screens increased dramatically during the COVID-induced isolation of kids: Screen time for entertainment purposes, including social media, increased by 73% among fourth and sixth graders and 108% with first and third graders.  

“I don’t object to screen-time,” Ophir told Haaretz. “I even think there is unnecessary panic about this, but I am aware that during lockdowns and quarantines, kids can spend an entire day in front of a screen. Sometimes parents have no choice, but nonetheless – we need to acknowledge that this comes at a price. Screen time comes at the expense of healthy and constructive activities like sports or high-quality sleep. The initial price is that becoming habituated to lengthy periods in front of a screen replaces interpersonal interaction, which as I said, is the basis for good mental health. A secondary consequence is that there is higher risk of kids being exposed to problematic content, like pornography and violence.”

Ophir is not optimistic about solutions with the Israeli public health system failing to come to the aid of the children who are suffering due to government policies. 

“We know that mental health issues were rife even before the pandemic, but now it is getting worse,” Ophir said. “We see very long waiting times for mental health appointments in the public system; we are witnessing a wave of mental distress among children and adolescents. I don’t want to blame anyone, but I do wish to tell our leaders – we can’t go on like this. Kids have to get their stability and routines back and we have to deal with the damage that has already been caused.”  

The All Israel News Staff is a team of journalists in Israel.

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