In our recent blog – ‘Improving mental health and well-being among staff and children: why a whole school approach is key’ – we touched on having observed a considerable increase in the number of young people and colleagues presenting with mental illness. We noted how this is an observation backed up by national statistics, but we did not delve into possible reasons why figures have risen significantly over the past few decades.

There is no disputing that there has been a huge cultural shift in the last 30 years: a shift that has had a huge effect on the educational landscape. What have been the factors in this shift? One of the most obvious triggers for educational change was the formation of Ofsted in the early 1990s. In order to implement a more rigorous school inspection system, John Major introduced this non-ministerial department of the UK government, which began the process of inspecting schools every four years. Pre-Ofsted, there was very little testing in many schools, which undoubtedly meant less pressure on exams for both the children and staff. University was also effectively free, up until fees were reintroduced in 1998. Today, while I believe there is unquestionably better-quality teaching, educational institutions are, in the vast majority of cases, more pressurised environments. Today’s system is target driven, with constant testing, increased exam pressures, higher personal, professional (and parental) expectations and the looming threat of substantial debt from university fees.

Another big change in the same decade was the introduction of the world wide web, which became publicly available in 1991. Since then, technology has advanced rapidly, including the introduction of everything from smartphones and tablets to messaging services and social media. This has drastically changed the way people both interact and learn. Young people now live in a world in which the boundaries between online and offline are blurred.

Breaktimes have also been dramatically reduced over the past 15 years, with an average reduction of 45 minutes per week in primaries and 65 minutes per week in secondaries (with no reduction in the average length of the school day).  This means less ‘downtime’ for staff and pupils. In addition, a 2017 survey conducted by laundry brands OMO and Persil found that, on average, children around the world spend less time outdoors than a maximum-security prisoner, who is guaranteed at least 2 hours of outdoor time a day. This is a worrying finding considering that scientific studies prove that time spent outside can fight depression, stress and anxiety, and even improve memory.

In terms of technological advancements, smartphones in particular – often the antithesis of outdoor time – are having an increasingly huge effect both inside and outside the school environment. Children are typically getting their first smartphone at a younger age and, according to a recent survey by music Magpie, eight in ten parents do not limit the amount of time they spend on them. Another recent report by media agency, Zenith, estimated that this year people will spend an average of 170.6 minutes, or nearly three hours a day, using the internet for things like shopping, browsing social media, chatting with friends, and streaming music and video. That is a tad more than the 170.3 minutes they are expected to spend watching TV and drastically more than time spent on the internet in the 90s.

Aside from the fact that smart device usage is neurologically stressful – it releases small amounts of cortisol, which keeps your mind constantly whirring – the mass use of devices such as smartphones and tablets has seen opportunities for connective conversation diminish rapidly. When everyone watches what they want separately on their own devices, there is a decline in social reasoning. In other words, no more arguing over what to watch. Although this sounds positive, it has arguably resulted in a rise in entitlement culture from both children and parents, simply because everyone is used to getting what they want, when they want. Learning to deal with low doses of frustration and ‘boredom’, as well as self-regulation and social reasoning, are the very things that teach resilience. Without having had as many opportunities to develop resilience throughout childhood, coping with stressful life events such as bereavement, bullying, losing a job etc. often becomes far more difficult later on in life.

The excessive use of digital technology such as social media and video games is also affecting children’s ability to communicate with one another, including reading body language, picking up on social cues and generally thinking for themselves. Research has shown that young people are also becoming more emotional and have weak self-identity and shorter attention spans. In her book ‘Mind Change’, leading neuroscientist Baroness Susan Greenfield, former director of the Royal Institution of Great Britain, claims that new advancements in digital technology are rewiring children’s brains and that children who use social media and play on digital tablets are more likely to suffer from depression and low self-esteem, as well as becoming more narcissistic.

While technology, and social media in particular, are repeatedly vilified, and often for good reason, we believe there is also a really important educational element there. Technology is not evil, but it is also not neutral. We have yet to find the right balance between time spent online vs offline. Technology has many fantastic benefits to aid life, work, school and relationships. So we need to teach children how to use it well and educate them about the long-term implications of over-use. Both children and adults can benefit from more time spent outside and from learning effective coping strategies for stress.

If you are interested in exploring the role technology, exam pressures and lack of downtime play in the mental health and well-being of young people and staff, get in touch today our well-being review service, or head to B11’s new well-being service page to find out more.


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