Looking forward

Mental health and
modern technology

Samantha Price (Benenden School) plots progress in provision in HMC schools.

As you would expect, walking into an HMC school 100 years ago would feel very different from today. Facilities, the curriculum, quality of food, quality of the boarding houses (in a boarding school), learning materials and above all, I would hasten to suggest, the conscious focus on ensuring the strong mental health of the young people in our care. This is a topic which is now as widely spoken about amongst school leaders as academic outcomes, curriculum reform and university destinations. Even in the last five years there has been an almost cosmic change in this regard.

Is it that for previous generations concerns regarding the positive mental health amongst pupils wasn’t an issue, either because the pressure on young people was less or that young people weren’t encouraged to speak up if they felt emotionally unwell? Or was it that our education system didn’t truly recognise the correlation between strong physical and mental health in a young person’s wellbeing and personal development? It is most likely a combination of both.

The rapid advent of technology, and with this social media, has transformed the dialogue concerning mental health in schools. Thirty years ago in our boarding schools, the only communication a young person would really have with the outside world during term would be through letters, queuing up with a 10p coin to use the House phone when you were considered responsible enough to do so, or when your parents or another kind relative came to take you out. Today, all young people have mobile phones and it is only a few brave schools where the first years are still not able to contact home in the first few weeks when they arrive to manage homesickness.

Our pupils connect constantly with the world beyond their schools through social media platforms: WhatsApp, Instagram, Snapchat and, familiar to us oldies, Facebook, to name but a few. The need to be connected, and to be seen as being connected, is central to every teenager’s life. To be part of the dialogue, to say something that prompts a ‘like’ and endorses acceptance takes enormous time and head space. Indeed, walking into schools today, tech is everywhere and, without regulation, our pupils would be on their phones, checking their media platform around the clock. Whilst fun, it brings pressure, distraction, a focus on the self and the selfie, as well as fatigue.

We all acknowledge that tech education is essential and we understand the enormous benefits that come with the online world. However, we have also become increasingly aware of the effects that ‘#constantconnect’ has on young people and school leaders are grappling with the most effective means of educating them to manage this world, their world, and self-regulate so that they remain in control of this amazingly powerful tool, rather than it controlling them.

It was five years ago that Chris Jeffery established the HMC Wellbeing Group – a group of likeminded Heads who wanted to get together with an informal agenda to focus on the growing concern over the mental fitness of our pupils. A survey in the early days of the group confirmed the pressures young people face: exam success, concern over future employment, parental pressure, body image, online image and so that list goes on. However, it was the challenge of managing screen time and social media that featured most strongly and it seemed that this was where the working group should initially focus. It was then that the newly-founded company DAUK (Digital Awareness UK) came to our attention and the work we started to do with them led to the HMC Tech Control campaign – two short films (with teaching materials) covering the world of tech with Tech Control 1 focusing on screen time (and the negative impact to mental health of round the clock activity with it) and Tech Control 2 (the positive impact that tech, when managed sensibly, has on a young person’s life). Both films have been disseminated through all HMC schools and shared with pupils and parents across the country. They have provided a powerful platform from which to speak to both teenage and adult audiences and helped to support parents to understand their child’s world and how they can support schools in developing healthy online habits, in part by setting a good example at home.

DAUK regularly visits schools, speaks with groups of students and works with them to establish strong patterns of tech behaviour. Whilst we have made great strides in this regard, we would all admit that we need the ongoing help of our older students to keep us on top of this rapidly changing world and to empower them to take the lead in establishing a sensible tech culture in our schools. Their understanding of the detrimental effects of constant screen time - from the brainwashing that repeated messages through social messages can instil, the erosion of the ability to concentrate, wind down and sleep and re-charge - sets the tone from which younger pupils will positively respond. Hence, so many of our schools now have Digital Leaders amongst the pupil body to take the lead on this.

Of course, this isn’t the end: technology continues to develop at a rapid pace with ever-evolving possibilities. 5G, Artificial Intelligence, round the clock surveillance and of course digital learning are but just a few areas that we as educators need to be responding to.

Therefore, digital technology remains an ongoing agenda item for the HMC Wellbeing Group. This is alongside the other important areas of work that the group is doing to support schools to track mental fitness amongst pupils and support them to develop strategies to take better care of themselves emotionally as well as physically.

The important role that this dialogue has in our schools enables us collectively to effectively address the very significant mental health challenges teenagers face and, most important of all, it is now a topic which is openly acknowledged as being essential.