Supporting children in care and all young people to handle social media

31 Dec

Parents and teachers face several challenging when bringing up young people.  Two groups of young people stand out.  The first is children in care.  The second relates to young people who are in danger of being addicted to social media.

I        Children in Care

Of the 12 million children in care in England in 2018, 73,000 (circa) – i.e. 0.61% – were in the care of local authorities.  This represents less than 1% of the children’s population. Altogether, 38% are in secure centres and 42% in young offender institutions.  These statistics are stark.   It should not come as a surprise to us that children in care who appear to be such a danger to others are some of the most vulnerable in our society.  Because they are vulnerable, they are the subjects of exploitation by the evil and criminal elements in the country.   Children in care are mainly boys. They feel hard-pressed and seldom have a moral compass.  They are lured into adopting macho stances by the unsavoury elements.  According they slip into crime more easily than their peers.

They are regularly in trouble in schools/academies and more likely to be turfed out/excluded when staff members come to their wits’ end.  When they are out of education, they are open to negative influences.   They succumb to them and spiral downwards in vicious circles.  What can we do to help them?

It is critical for them to be in education at school/academy if they are to be supported appropriately.  But this calls for additional resources, resources which don’t exist.  The level of help that institutions have is woefully inadequate.   In a class of 30, one or two malign influences can mar the education of the rest.   But if not helped, children in care – the broken fragments of our young society – will find solace (as they grow up) in a world of crime. That will cost the nation much, much more.  In fact, they currently do.

Darren Martindale, the headteacher for looked-after children in the City of Wolverhampton Council, wrote eloquently about on the subject in The Times Educational Supplement (20 December 2019).   In the present milieu of constrained resources, he has helped schools and academies in his neck of the woods to find alternatives to exclusions to aid children in care with proper assessments “of need and risk, intervening early and delivering targeted interventions where they are most needed”.  However, this cannot happen across the country without the collaboration of the key agencies such as the police, Youth Offending Teams (YOTs), Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEND) services and parents and carers.

In Wolverhampton, the YOT has been placed in the forefront of Mr Martindale’s work with children and families as well as schools and academies.    The local authority appointed a dedicated educational psychologist to inject specialist support and Mr Martindale developed the strategy.   He convenes monthly meetings to review cases – especially of young people who continue to be the source of grief to themselves and others.  The stakeholders collaborate to plan action and improve the situation.    They do this by identifying the barriers to improvement and then using their know-how and wisdom to remove them.  They try, as far as possible to move away from the blame-game by supporting one another and the vulnerable children who are so easily dubbed as “trouble-makers and perpetrators”.

The working group members develop mechanisms for solving problems and resolving conflicts. They also appeal to the schools and academies to deploy restorative practices with these young, vulnerable people.  Mr Martindale takes the lead in training the designated teachers for children in care in such practices.

Wolverhampton has been producing fruit.   In March 2015, 53% of school-age offenders were attending full-time education in the city.  (Nationally the figure was 45%.)  By 2017/18 the figure in Wolverhampton had risen to 73% and in 2018/19 it was 78%.

Wolverhampton is a shining example of good practice.  Mr Martindale’s work is permeated with a can-do culture.   Schools, academies and local authorities would do well to follow his lead.

II      Social Media

Across the pond in Washington DC, Dr Delaney Ruston, produced a documentary, Screenagers Next Chapter: Uncovering Skills for Stress Resilience, based on the experiences that she had with her own children, Tessa (17) and Chase (20).   The film explores the battles which schools, parents and society have with young people (especially teenagers) in the use and abuse of smartphones.   This film is a sequel to one that she produced in 2016, School-agers: Growing Up in the Digital Age, directed by Dr Ruston.  (More information can be found at screenagersmovie.com.)

At the age of 15, Tessa wanted a smartphone because she would be “cool and able to look busy in awkward situations”.   Her mother was troubled.   However, her father, Peter, had already given Tessa an iPhone on her 13th birthday.

Dr Ruston was keen to learn how technology affected the lives of her children as well as young patients for whom she worked part-time as a primary care physician in Seattle, Washington. In an interview with Anna Maxted (reported in The Times Educational Supplement on 31 October 2019), she said that the validation that girls get online was mostly about how they looked. “One experiment, in which girls took a maths test in swimsuits, showed that merely being conscious of their bodies affected cognitive ability.”

There is a lack of evidence that screens cause depression.  However, Dr Ruston told Ms Maxted, if one were “in a low emotional state, whether that’s chronic or just one day” one is more susceptible to feeling left out or inadequate on social media.  She added: “It is truly a call to action for us as parents and educators to begin to have more discussions with our youths and teenagers to help them become more mindful of how they’re using screen time”.

A red flag was when children began neglecting other activities. This happened with her children.  Accordingly, she ensured that Chase, her son, continued to pursue activities he loved, such as music. But the family also had weekly discussions, “tech-talk Tuesdays”, to chat about any pertinent screen-based topic.

She was alarmed about the large number of parents who allowed their children to have devices in their bedroom during sleep. In the USA, 36% of teens self-report waking up and checking their devices more than once a night.  Altogether, 41% slept for fewer than seven hours a night when they should have 10.   Sleep deprivation leads to overeating, obesity and diabetes and “depressive thinking, poor concentration, so doing worse in school, which leads to worse self-confidence”.

“A myth that parents have is that kids and teens need to learn self-control, so we just need to let them have the screens and figure it out. In fact, that’s what my husband was saying. And that’s a dangerous myth because what we’re doing is setting them up for failure.”

In the USA, on average, a teenager spends six and a half hours daily on screen-time. “As hours increase, several studies are showing that it means an increased chance that a teen will report some sort of emotional challenge around anxiety or depressive symptoms.” Youngsters turn to YouTube to “numb out” instead of turning to friends for support.  The upshot is that they miss out practising essential skills to promote their wellbeing.

So, what can parents and school and academy staff learn from Screenagers? It is that adults need to have respectful, even-handed conversations with the young people, voicing their concern as well as listening to their views and opinions and acknowledging the benefits and harms of technology.    Each of us has two ears and one mouth.   The adult (in conversation with the youth), consequently, should listen twice as much as he/she speaks.  This provides a good basis for negotiation, which can lead to limiting screen times and helping young people develop self-control.

Dr Ruston told Ms Maxted that parents (and teachers) could try using the three Vs to help young people develop good habits.

  1. The first is validation – i.e. understanding why they want what they want.
  2. The second is valuing the relationship that the adult has with the young person.
  3. The third is recognising that the young person (who has had less time on this planet than the adult) is vulnerable and could benefit from help and support rather than censure.

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