Let's imagine that Facebook had existed in the 1970s. What do you think postings would reveal about the lives of young people a generation ago? What photos would be posted on Instagram?
Let's also suppose that ChildLine had been available in the sixties and seventies to support children in distress, as it does today? Would it have been as busy then as it is now, helping to protect so many vulnerable children from abuse and neglect?
I ask these questions with two recent reports in mind, both raising deep concerns about the emotional wellbeing of children and young people in the UK. The Children's Society report concluded that our children were among the unhappiest in the world while Girl Guiding highlighted despair among young girls struggling to come to terms with a range of emotional issues. Together they painted a profoundly disturbing picture of what it is like to be growing up in Britain today.
As a parent and foster carer I welcome this focus on the mental health of young people. These latest reports, like many before them, provoked much-needed debate about parenting and education. More importantly, they challenge the woefully inadequate provision of mental health services for children and young people.
However, I am perturbed by the assertion, often explicit and sometimes implied, that today's young people face pressures on a scale not known to previous generations. That emotional trauma is affecting children at much younger age than ever before, creating an epidemic of mental illness that is without precedent. The corollary of this premise is that there was a golden age of innocent childhoods when life was simple and carefree, when boys and girls did not inflict injuries upon themselves or suffer torment about their appearance and agonise about their school exams.
It is a recurring theme that runs through the latest Children's Society and Girl Guiding surveys and through many which preceded them. It is based on a premise which remains largely unchallenged, and yet one which I, as a child of the 1960s and 1970s, find wholly implausible.
The children I grew up with would have loved Facebook and Instagram. Their timelines would be remarkably similar to today's: sassy, irreverent, full of fun and passion. But there would also be angst, plenty of it; intense self-doubt and low esteem; and a seething rage. I can't think of an issue today that didn't loom large in the childhoods of my peers: body image, self harm, bullying, sexual hang-ups, loneliness, drugs, anxiety about the future. Yes, statistics point to an exponential rise in cases of mental illness. But this is skewed by the fact that many families did not seek medical help and troubled children were simply condemned as disruptive. Bullying was tolerated, and people turned a blind eye to prejudice. It was all part of growing up.
I also have no doubt that a 1970s version of ChildLine would be kept as busy as it is today. I feel sadness for those who had nowhere to turn, knowing how an organisation like ChildLine could have given them the protection they so desperately needed. Those who talk of a golden age of innocent childhoods should reflect on this: suicide is now the leading cause of death for middle-aged men and women. We understand enough about mental illness to know that so much can be traced back to childhood.
Sure, there was much that was good about growing up in the 1960s and 1970s. But there was also great uncertainty: wars, terrorism, recession, famine, millions fleeing for their lives. In fact, today's headlines are simply an echo of yesterday's news.
Was it better for the generation before mine? My father was born shortly before World War II and his childhood memories are of air raid sirens, bomb shelters and rationing. In his family's community many lost their lives, in battle or in homes wrecked by bombs. They coped, in their own way. But war left a generation that could be hard and unforgiving, struggling with its demons. Nobody could emerge unscathed from such horror, even if those cheery faces that appear in grainy black and white wartime film footage suggests otherwise.
Why does any of this matter in 2015? By describing children's mental illness as an epidemic without precedent we are denying them a sense of perspective. We are building barriers between generations when we should be sharing experiences that may, at the very least, offer comfort in difficult times.
But cruellest of all, we risk diminishing the mental health problems of earlier generations, who need our support and compassion just as desperately as the young people we seek to protect.
Raising awareness of the shortcomings of current mental health provision is an absolute necessity. Educating and supporting parents to respond to their children's emotional needs should be a priority, and we must all join the fight against stigma. But the tone and language of our campaigns is just as important.