What are we doing to our children?
Recent reports into the mental health of our teenagers have made for very depressing reading. In the UK, we appear to be doing ambition well but the associated pressures this brings put us in the unenviable position as one of the top developed countries in the world for high levels of stress, unhappiness and anxiety amongst teenagers, especially our girls.
This year was the first time the OECD, Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development conducted wellbeing assessments alongside the tri-annual study of academic performance in 72 countries. The PISA tests were carried out with a new wellbeing test reflecting growing concern among educators about the impact of wellbeing on academic performance and the crucial part it plays in pupils realising their potential.
Unfortunately the UK didn’t fare well in these wellbeing tests. In fact we were one of the unhappiest nations, with high levels of stress and anxiety amongst our 15 year olds, 1 in 6 saying that they are unhappy in school.
On the plus side, UK pupils were shown to be highly motivated and ambitious with percentages in the 90s for wanting to do the best they can and shaping their life choices but this was offset by the negatives of lots of exam stress, frequent testing and parental pressure.
The print had hardly dried on this OECD report when University College London hit us with their findings from another major study that revealed that 1 in 4 teenage girls consider themselves to be depressed.
Picking through both research reports there was one recurrent theme that kept emerging, especially for girls – the pernicious use of social media, mobile phones and the internet!
In the OECD research – there appeared to a direct correlation between unhappiness and time spent online. The UK was second only to Chile for the highest levels of daily internet use outside school. Averaging 188 minutes per day.
Teenagers who spent six hours or more online during weekdays were less satisfied with life and had less sense of belonging and engagement with school.
Clearly as the headmistress of a girls’ school these reports alarmed me. I need to ensure that we’re doing everything in our power to ensure that NHSG girls don’t fall victim to these statistics. Protecting our children in an ever-changing world is an issue that has dominated many of my recent blogs and shapes a lot of our work in school.
We have launched active engagement and well being campaigns in school, the SELFIE programme being a key strand of our efforts. Newcastle High is also one of the frontrunners in the Girls’ Day School Trust Positive Schools project which aims to train teachers and through them pupils to be more emotionally literate, manage pressure and adapt better to change. 12 teachers from Newcastle High have taken part and been trained as part of the first pilot project with Positive and the results are starting to feed into the classroom. These programmes are designed to improve the health and wellbeing of our girls and feed in to every aspect of daily life at Newcastle High. We know how crucial this is, not just for academic, but for lifelong success.
Social media and the internet is tricky to fathom for many parents, myself included, but we need to get a handle on it for the sake of our children.
One beacon of hope in all the statistical gloom is that the happiest and highest achievers in any country had parents who spent time talking to them. The OECD found that the simple act of talking, showing an interest and listening to children still made the biggest difference to their feelings of belonging and satisfaction with life.
The next step for us therefore is to get our teenagers out of their bedrooms, off their phones and talking – good luck!
Our children’s experience of mobile technology and the technological capabilities of the devices we provide for them are alien to us and are clearly throwing up issues and challenges for which we all are ill prepared.
Trying to protect young people from the dangers of what can seem like a harmless mobile phone boils down to one thing – protecting these young, impressionable, immature minds from themselves!
Trying to re-establish a technological balance in the home can seem draconian but it is crucial that we try. Is it any wonder that children are feeling depressed and disengaged when they are spending hours online staring at a 3×2 inch screen!
One of the added benefits of our beautiful new school is that the copper cladding that encases our new building blocks phone signals making them redundant within its walls. Not a deliberate design feature but an unexpected bonus. While in school mobile phones don’t get a signal. Genius!
But, even our girls who are active, engaged and offline at school will, like their contemporaries across the UK, be spending hours online at home.
This is not a criticism of them or you as parents; it is a fact. For young people, most, if not all, their communication is channelled through their phone; friendships, entertainment and information all rolled into a hand held device.
We need to ensure that our girls are building real, robust and lasting friendships and relationships that can withstand social media, not to see it as a crutch or be created by it. Just because you ‘like’ someone’s Instagram feed, or have them on Snapchat does not make them a true friend.
When it comes to social media it is tricky, if not impossible, to anticipate the trends and problems that will be thrown up. The ground seems like shifting sand under our feet, but we all need to be aware of the different forces at work in the lives of our young people and the opportunity for external forces to do them harm. By knowing, we can then work hard to offer protection and the first step is to protect them from themselves.
I really would urge you all to start introducing management plans for mobile phone use in your homes, for yourself as well as your children. I am as guilty as anyone of overuse but I’m trying to reduce the time spent ‘connected’ and online.
One Golden Rule – no phones at the table at any family meal time.
Agree a set of household rules for phone use, consider introducing a Wifi curfew with phones off and out of rooms by a certain time – and certainly no phones in rooms overnight. Even in ‘silent mode’ the phone lighting up or vibrating every time a message comes through is a huge distraction and as we all well know, so very tempting! Invest in an alarm clock for your children so they don’t have to have phones by their beds for the alarm function.
Another suggestion is to start watching what your children watch. Many young people rarely watch TV in the family room or with someone else present – instead they consume their entertainment largely online via Netflix or YouTube and often in the solitary confines of their bedrooms. It is an intense way to watch and doesn’t invite discussion, or the opportunity to diffuse the impact of what they have seen and heard. You may not want to watch ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ (I understand this is one of the latest favourites) or You Tubers giving make up tutorials but at least you know what they are watching. Some of the most popular Netflix series including ‘13 Reasons Why’ are certainly programmes you really don’t want them watching on their own.
We are a social media nation. We have embraced new technologies more quickly than most continental European countries yet our teenagers are the most unhappy, research is now revealing that this is no coincidence. It is up to us to tackle the problem one phone at a time!
Hilary French, Headmistress, Newcastle High School for Girls