Is children’s welfare being undermined by the twin obsessions of academic success and social media?

18 Apr

I        Children’s Well-Being

There was a time not so long ago when young people, particularly boys of an ethnic group, hated to be told that they had mental health problems.  School leaders and teachers fuelled this loathing when they (the youngsters) behaved badly with remarks such as: “You are crazy and mad!”

The pendulum has now swung the other way.  It is now quite “cool” for a young person to aver that s/he has mental difficulties.  And it is not just the “snowflake” generation.

This apocryphal story epitomises this splendidly.  One man, in a conversation with his friend, said: “My health is being ruined because of worry.”

“What are you worrying about?” asked his friend.

“I am worrying about my health!” came the riposte.

Notwithstanding, research reveals that mental ill-health is on the rise.   People (especially in the West) live longer than ever and cures have been found for an increasing number of maladies.  But the Cinderella of the Health Service is mental health. It is, therefore, unsurprising that children’s suicide rates are up 67% since 2010.  A quarter of those referred for help were denied treatment. Despite the need, according to the Care Quality Commission, 23% of child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) were rated “inadequate” or “required improvement”.

Of all the causes of young people’s mental ill-health two stand out.

(i)         The first is the pressure they are under to perform academically so that

  • their schools/academies shine in league tables,
  • Ofsted extols the virtues of these schools/academies,
  • schools/academies find it that much easier to attract more pupils/students and their leaders and
  • the managers of schools/academies breathe sighs of relief because they become stronger financially as they attract more pupils.

(ii)        The second is the way young people allow themselves to be manipulated by social media.  There is now a government realisation that it should be enacting laws to curb the worst excesses of social media.

II       Schools and Academies need to step up and lead

Every school/academy could take the first tentative steps by recognising that the problem of mental ill-health exists before acting to do something about it by instituting a policy signed and owned all governors and staff members.   The policy should address the following matters.

  • Developing pupil resilience
  • Enabling pupils to support one another and enhance good social relationships
  • Teaching social and emotional skills
  • Instituting systems to identify and address the problem of pupils’ mental ill-health as early as possible
  • Working effectively with parents/carers
  • Engaging in training

Matters, despite a school’s/academy’s best efforts, could go pear-shaped.   Despite the best efforts of staff, children may, in the process, become mentally disturbed.  When such instances arise, staff and governors need to identify signs of distress.

Young people

  • keep away from friends and family and becoming socially withdrawn;
  • exhibit changes in mood or eating/sleeping habits;
  • perform poorly in their work;
  • talk or joke about self-harm or suicide;
  • express feelings of failure, uselessness or loss of hope;
  • engage in secretive behaviour;
  • are late or absent;
  • do not want to do Physical Education (PE) or get changed for PE;
  • wear long sleeves in hot weather;
  • take drugs or alcohol;
  • show sign of physical harm that are repeated or appear non-accidental; and
  • experience repeated physical pain or nausea with no evident cause.

Schools/academies may wish to ease up on the pressures they bring to bear on pupils to achieve.  This is difficult, given the pressures placed on governors, school/academy leaders and staff to score well in the national league tables.

A University College of London study showed an enduring relationship between mental health and verbal scores, with those who have low verbal ability having worse mental health outcomes than those with higher verbal ability. This finding is true when one considers children from the 1970 British Cohort Study as well as children from the more recent Millennium Cohort Study.

The report (published in 2018) was based on findings from the eighth Annual Literacy Survey of 49,047 children and young people aged 8 to 18 in the UK.  It explored the link between reading, writing and mental wellbeing, by developing two new measures.

(i)         In the Mental Wellbeing Index, researchers quantified children’s responses to questions on life satisfaction, coping skills and self-belief on a scale of 1 to 10, where 10 was the highest level of mental wellbeing and 1 the lowest

(ii)        In the Literacy Engagement Score, the researchers analysed children’s responses to questions on how much they enjoyed reading and writing, how often they read and wrote outside school, what they thought about reading and writing, and how good children thought they were at reading and writing. Scores were then given out of a total of 52, where 52 is the highest level of engagement with literacy practices.

The study revealed the following.

  • Children and young people who were the most engaged with literacy had better mental wellbeing than their peers who were the least engaged (Mental Wellbeing Index scores of 7.9/10 vs 6.6/10).
  • Children who were the most engaged with literacy were three times more likely to have higher levels of mental wellbeing than children who were the least engaged (39.4 vs 11.8).
  • Conversely, children who were the least engaged with literacy were twice as likely to have low levels of mental wellbeing than their peers who were the most engaged (37.4 vs 15).
  • Children with above expected reading skills were three times more likely to have higher levels of mental wellbeing than their peers with below expected reading skills (40.3 vs 13.1).
  • As children move from primary to secondary school, their levels of literacy engagement and mental wellbeing both begin and continue to decline.
  • Boys who were the most engaged with literacy had higher levels of mental wellbeing than girls who were equally engaged (Mental Wellbeing Index scores of 8.1/10 vs 7.6/10).

III     Social Media

A Sunday Times investigation found several cases of self-harm on Pinterest that can be viewed by children as young as 13. The images include blood-spattered arms showing self-inflicted wounds, a picture of a teenage girl hanging and many “mottos” that normalises suicide.

The site is a virtual scrapbook driven by algorithms.  It is hugely popular with young women.  It sent a personalised email to 14-year-old Molly Russell’s email address a month after she took her own life in November 2017, with self-harm images including a slashed thigh. The email said: “I can’t tell you how many times I wish I was dead.”

Molly’s father, Ian Russell, said at an NSPCC Parliament event in March 2019 that technology giants had been allowed to regulate themselves for far too long.

‘The tech captains still seem to be heading in the wrong direction, driving ever deeper into Silicon Valley,’ he said.  ‘Up until now they have chosen their own course. Governments have allowed social media platforms to be self-regulated but remember this really is a matter of life and death and it’s getting worse.

‘Now is the time for the UK Government to bring effective internet regulation, with strong sanctions as back-up. Now is the time for the UK to lead the world in making the online world a safer place, especially for the young.’

Russell is calling for the creation of an independent regulator to ensure that “distressing content can be removed from social media and online within 24 hours”. He was dismayed by the refusal of tech companies to give him access to Molly’s accounts so that he could see the content she was looking at in the hours before her death.

A head of steam is developing, both, among the public and in government, to compel social media sites to curb the negative effects their materials.   Facebook has been severely criticised for allowing terrorists to engage their worst excesses.  Facebook together with other social media sites are again under the spotlight for causing young people to spiral downwards into depression and self-harm.

Thirty families (in line with Ian Russell’s call) accused technology giants of abetting in their children’s suicides following the death of 14-year-old Molly Russell.  Papyrus (telephone: 0800 068 4141 or email, a charity that works to prevent youth suicides, said it had been contacted by the 30 families.

The health secretary, Matt Hancock, requested social media bosses to take responsibility for the effect their sites are having on young lives. He criticised their complacency in relation to the impact they are having children’s health and happiness and wrote to Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Pinterest, Apple and Google, asking them to remove disturbing material or face legislation.

The Sunday Times found multiple graphic images of self-harm on Pinterest (founded in 2010 with 250 million users 81% of whom are women) which can be viewed by children as young as 13, including bloodied arms showing self-inflicted wounds, a cartoon of a young girl hanging and quotations that normalised suicide.  An image showed a girl sitting in a sink of blood with the caption: “She closed her eyes and found relief in a knife. The blood flows as she cries.”

Underneath one of the most graphic images of self-harm was a discussion about how to make the best cut. “How do you get them to open like that?” a user asked. “Do you go really deep or do you get them to open it in some way?” The poster replied explaining the method for cutting herself. Another user added: “Wish I had the guts to go that deep.”

After The Sunday Times created a pseudonymous account for a child aged 14 and began storing these images, Pinterest suggested further “ideas for this board”. These included pictures relating to suicide, including a fist holding white pills and several images of blood and cuts. Pinterest claims that it contacts users who appear to be “experiencing emotional distress”, but The Sunday Times reporters had received no such message from the site.

Pinterest removed the graphic images in late January 2019 after The Sunday Times flagged them to the company.

(1)        How can parents/carers keep children safe?

Parents and carers have a responsibility to keep their children safe.  For starters they

  • should first ask their children what they are viewing online;
  • control their children’s phones to limit applications and features on the devices or to add passwords; and
  • restrict the settings for explicit content, purchases and downloads.

(2)        Government Initiative

During Children’s Mental Health Week in early February 2019, education secretary Damian Hinds announced that 370 schools in England would take part in a series of trials testing different approaches to support young people’s mental health.

They were to benefit from mindfulness exercises, relaxation techniques and breathing exercises to help them regulate their emotions. The study would run until 2021.  Hinds also confirmed the nine areas across the country which would trial new high-quality mental health assessments for young people entering care, helping them get the support they need at times when they were vulnerable.

Health education would become a requirement in schools/academies.  Children were to be introduced gradually to issues around mental health, wellbeing and happiness.

Teams of trained mental health staff will work with and in schools/academies.  The initiative is to be led by the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families in partnership with University College London.  The study is now in its second wave and recruiting more primary and secondary schools/academies to join.

The trials are designed to explore the impact of different approaches, in recognition of the significant time children spend at a school/academy and the important role teachers can play in recognising changes in pupils’ behaviour or mood.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said:

“I want to see all children and young people have the opportunity to flourish – and protecting their mental health is vital to this. To explore what works in schools/academies to support young people’s mental wellbeing, the trials will test five different approaches.”

  • Two approaches will focus on increasing awareness in secondary schools through short information sessions either led by a specialist instructor or by trained teachers. These will include a set of tools to increase understanding of mental health and mental disorders among both pupils and teachers.
  • Three approaches in primary and secondary schools will focus on lighter-touch approaches such as exercises drawn from mindfulness practice, breathing exercises and muscle relaxation techniques and recognising the importance of support networks including among their own peers.

The areas selected include two of the Government’s Opportunity Areas – Doncaster and the North Yorkshire Coast – where the programme will examine which professionals should be involved in the assessment and develop best practice that ensures every child’s individual needs are at the centre of the process.

IV     Concluding Thought

Schools and academies do amazing work to grow our future generations.  As in all sectors of life, there are rogue elements.  A few engage in off-rolling placing inordinate pressures on parents, fellow professionals and, worst of all, the children, who become victims.  Sadly, all schools/academies then get tainted with society’s critical brush.

One aspect of educational life that governors, headteachers and staff are currently engaged in is promoting both, children’s academic progress and achievement and their well-being.   Both may, seemingly, appear to be antithetical.  Doing more of one can be detrimental to doing more of the other.

However, it does not have to be so, as we have seen from the UCL research.   When children succeed academically, they feel good about themselves.  What about those that don’t succeed.   If they exert themselves and fail, children should not be slated and placed in dog-houses.  (This is not to say, as the journalist Melanie Phillips consistently avers, that all must have prizes.)  Rather, the staff in schools/academies need to find ways of using children’s failures as springboards to their future successes, getting them to learn from their mistakes, to become more resilient so that they don’t give up but persevere. After all, one of the aims of education is to help young people to convert their vicious circles of failures into virtuous ones of successes.  To do this, they need to learn how to “fail well”.


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