More young people in the UK are reporting mental health problems, and there are also apparent increases in self-harm – particularly among girls and young women. The coronavirus pandemic and resultant lockdown has further added to these worries.
School closures across the UK have provided a unique opportunity to explore teenagers’ mental health and wellbeing when not in school. Perhaps surprisingly at first glance, our recent study of year nine students in the south west of England actually suggested there might have been an overall reduction in anxiety, and an increase in wellbeing, in young people aged 13-14 during the coronavirus lockdown.
The study raises questions about how the school environment affects younger teenagers’ mental health and wellbeing.
Stresses at school
Our findings suggest that the period of lockdown when students were not attending school may have protected them from some of the usual factors which can lead to poor mental health. These are likely to include the pressures of schoolwork and bullying, but also more subtle challenges in negotiating relationships with peers and with teachers.
This may be caused both by poor behaviour or engagement on the side of the student, and by teachers’ stress levels as a result of working within a highly pressured environment. Students who already felt disconnected from school and peers saw larger improvements in mental health and wellbeing during lockdown, lending support to this theory.
On a more positive note, students felt more connected to school during lockdown. Removed from the stresses of conventional school life, teachers may have found new and better ways to connect and communicate with them during lockdown. It is important for schools to reflect on the changes they made during this period, and whether these might be continued.
The social media debate
A major area of interest in terms of understanding the deterioration in young people’s mental health has been the impact of social media. There has been a rapid expansion of the use of social media among adolescents, and this has often been the focus for those seeking to explain the rise in poor mental health within this age group.
However, evidence is beginning to emerge that the link between social media use and mental health is more complex than is often argued. In our lockdown study, we found social media use increased among girls during this period.
The biggest increase was seen during the week, when more than half of the girls we interviewed reported spending in excess of three hours daily on social media during lockdown. In addition, we did not see large changes in peer connectedness from pre-pandemic for either boys or girls, despite school closures and various social distancing measures.
Our study highlights the benefits of social media and digital platforms in enabling young people to stay in touch with friends and family, as well as staying connected with schools, at a time of physical separation. It seems now more than ever is a time for a more nuanced understanding of the benefits as well as the risks of social-media use for young people’s mental health and wellbeing.
The closure of schools for most young people has created an unprecedented pause to school life. We should take this opportunity to consider how we might reshape school cultures and systems to be more supportive of teenage mental health and wellbeing in the future.
Better understanding is needed of what makes young people feel connected to school, and how this can be strengthened. On the other hand, we must consider what it is that damages young people’s mental health within the school environment, and how these features might be lessened or removed.
We do not yet know the longer-term impacts that being away from school has had on either young people’s mental health or their educational outcomes. What we do know is that schools will have a key role to play in supporting young people and addressing any damage that has been done during the pandemic. It is therefore crucial that we ensure school environments are shaped in a way that enhances, rather than undermines, mental health.
Emily Widnall received funding for this research from the NIHR School for Public Health Research.