The second week in May was the 21st annual Mental Health Awareness Week, which this year focused on the impact of loneliness and the practical steps we can take to address it.
For young people in particular, mental health has become one of the greatest challenges they are faced with today. In the UK, government figures indicate that one in six young people aged 6 to 16 had a probable mental health condition in late 2021, a sharp increase from one in nine in 2017.
Meanwhile, 50 percent of all lifetime mental illnesses develop by the age of 14, with 75 percent developing by the age of 24, according to NAMI, The National Alliance for Mental Illness in the US. This shows just what a crucial and vulnerable stage adolescence is and why it is so important to support young people in this stage of life.
Mental health is a challenge that schools across the world are grappling with as they constantly seek new ways to safeguard the well-being of their students. It’s also a challenge that has undoubtedly increased as a result of the pandemic, as schools for the first time in history had to close their doors, young people spent more time than ever with their families and away from their friends, and their learning and social lives moved online.
During COVID, teenagers lost the true connection with their peers and therefore the world, they felt isolated and lost their independence while having to deal with the conflicting feelings and thoughts typical of adolescence.
There are in fact many positive ways in which technology supported young people during the pandemic, enabling online learning and providing instant means of communication with their friends and teachers. However, what’s becoming increasingly apparent is that young people are now more addicted to their phones than ever before, spending far too much time in front of screens and therefore not benefiting enough from the emotional connectivity that is generated through face-to-face conversation.
At the same time, young people today are having to cope with the daily pressures of social media and gaming, constantly comparing themselves to their avatars and following celebrities and influencers who document their lives through the rose-tinted lens of Photoshop. While its important to recognize that there are some social media platforms that do in fact facilitate well-being practices that are growing in popularity amongst young people, such as ASMR videos on TikTok and YouTube, the reality is that over-consumption of social media can lead to a variety of mental health conditions, ranging from OCD and anxiety, to eating disorders or even self-harm.
With all this in mind, schools are quite rightly recognising the importance of digital well-being, which couples an appreciation of the benefits that technology can offer when used in the right way with a real awareness of the dangers it can bring.
Teachers must play a pivotal role in helping students learn how to have a healthier relationship with technology, understanding how and when their devices can support their education, and their social development, while recognizing when it’s important to put the phone down and focus on the physical and the present. Put simply, it’s about encouraging a better sense of balance.
In recent years I’ve become acutely aware that the role of a teacher has fundamentally changed. No longer are we only responsible for teaching a specific subject to our students, but we now have a far greater duty to equip young people with the tools to support their emotional wellbeing alongside the core curriculum. In order to do this effectively, we need teacher training to shift from simply classroom management to championing student well-being, self-awareness, and coping strategies.
Because the truth is, well-being is a skill to be learned, and like any skill, it improves with practice. Schools should therefore be a place for experimentation when it comes to student well-being, where creativity is encouraged and different tools are explored.
So, what simple steps can teachers take to help improve young people’s relationships with technology and nurture a greater sense of digital well-being?
- Take 10 minutes at the start of each lesson away from screens, where you ask students questions about themselves, encouraging communication and providing an open forum for discussion, without the distraction of devices.
- Encourage Digital Feng Shui to declutter devices and remove unwanted or unnecessary apps or files, teaching students how to organize their inbox and tidy up their desktop with the removal or creation of folders.
- Offer a safe space for discussion in tutorial groups where students can share the impact that technology has on their productivity. Encourage them to share strategies such as delay gratification, or turning off the autoplay button on Netflix.
- Apply the ‘Really!? rule’, encouraging students to ask themselves if they ‘Really?!’ need to check their phone every so often.
- Apps such as Forest can help students stay focused, while the Calm app offers soothing bedtime stories to listen to at the end of the day.