Young people and mental health in a changing world

Young people, and young girls in particular, are suffering in our rapidly changing world. The Children’s Survey analysed a survey of 11,000 14-year-olds and found that a quarter of girls and nearly 1 in 10 boys had self-harmed in a year. Child mental health referrals have increased by 26% over the last five years and worryingly almost a quarter of children who sought help from mental health services last year were turned away, including children who had self-harmed or suffered abuse.

Matthew Reed, the chief executive of the Children’s Society, said: “It is deeply worrying that so many children are unhappy to the extent that they are self-harming. Worries about how they look are a big issue, especially for girls”. The rise of social media has connected young people but it has also led to an increase in young girls comparing themselves and worrying if their latest selfie doesn’t attract a high number of likes and comments. Whilst the stereotyping and objectification of women in advertising has arguably always pressured girls to look a certain way, and to focus on their looks above other attributes, the increased use of social media by today’s young people has meant that girls can never switch off from this scrutiny. Furthermore, Instagram models and other social media ‘influencers’ blur the line between fiction and reality, employing a host of filters and Photoshop tools to create ‘perfect’ and unrealistic images of male and female bodies. The endless bombardment of images of perfect people is bound to have an impact on young people’s self-esteem. The blurring of authenticity and advertising is also problematic; you only have to look at Kim Kardashian’s paid promotion of diet lollipops in an Instagram post to see the unhealthy effect some of these influencers may have on young girls, by further fuelling girls’ insecurities about their bodies and potentially encouraging eating disorders.

Looking at data from almost 10,000 families from 2009-2015, researchers at the University of Essex found that girls use social media more than boys, and that their mental health suffers as a result. The study, published in BMC Health, showed that by the age of 15, 43% of girls were on social media sites for at least an hour a day, compared to 31% of boys. It seems that girls are more likely to compare themselves to others on the sites, which compounds the damage this does to their self-esteem. A study in 2017 by the Royal Society of Public Health, which asked 1,500 young people to track their moods whilst using the five most popular social media sites, showed that 7 in 10 felt that Instagram made them feel worse about body image. Furthermore, half of the 14-24 year olds felt that Instagram and Facebook exacerbated feelings of anxiety. Combine the effects of prolonged social media use with exam stress and you have a pressure cooker that threatens to damage children’s mental health. As Anna Cole, Parliamentary and Inclusion Specialist at the Association of School and College Leaders, points out, we “need to do more to understand the factors that are driving up the prevalence of mental health problems among young people. This is a complex area and there is no easy answer. But two issues which have caused us concern are the impact of social media use and misuse, and the impact of new harder GCSEs.”

At St Mary’s, Cambridge we try to tackle this in a number of ways. We listen to our students and value their well-being; the girls have access to a school counsellor, our excellent Lay Chaplain is trained as an expert listener, and we also have an independent listener for our boarding students should the girls wish to talk to an adult independent of the school.

At St Mary’s, we have a ‘sport for all’ policy; as physical exercise has been proven to enhance positive moods and reduce stress, we believe that is important that all of our students take part in and enjoy exercise. From yoga to rowing, every girl can find a positive outlet for pent-up energy. Creative endeavours, such as art and music, are also important parts of school life, and we run an annual Creative Writing Competition that children across Cambridgeshire can take part in.

Perhaps most importantly, our approach is that our students’ well-being is just as important as their results. We believe that each of our students is a unique individual who is valued simply because they are who they are. We want each child to reach their full potential, whatever that may be; and as we believe that children achieve more when they are happy, we focus on providing excellent pastoral care and a safe and supportive environment for our students.

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