Ten years to terrible teen mental health: what’s changed in education, society and teen life

Ten years ago this week I left the classroom for the last time to go on maternity leave. A lot has changed in the educational landscape, and the life of teens, in those ten years. As I'm a big advocate of looking back, reflecting and seeing what we can learn from experience I thought it would be interesting to review those ten years and see what we can take from them.

What's changed in education and teen life

1. Smartphones and social media

When I left the classroom to go on maternity leave I only knew one person with a smartphone and he was a friend of mine who had a posh job in London. Teenagers had phones, and I had a phone, but they were all the old style – all we did with them was send texts, make calls and occasionally play a game of snake. And, if a phone appeared in the classroom it was confiscated.

Nowadays, every teen seems to have a phone and they are connected to their friends all day, and sometimes all night, on social media.

For some teenagers, this provides a lifeline to online communities that ‘get' them and their experiences and take on life. For others, it's just a fun way to stay in touch outside school hours. For an unfortunate group, it's a dark experience where they are bullied, and they can never get away from their bullies even when they're not at school or it's the middle of the night.

As an observer of how phones and social media have affected teen life, I think it's quite alarming how they have become so pervasive without any real critical thought applied to how good an idea it is. I see phones (and other devices, like Xboxes) becoming a source of argument in family life. This is largely because teenagers aren't very good at self-regulation – they can't identify when enough is enough. And, families are often nervous to put boundaries in place around the use of these devices e.g. keeping them downstairs overnight, not using them at the dinner table and not having notifications going off next to you while you're trying to study.

Every time we have a parents only coaching call for the Extraordinaries Club, my online hub for families supporting them through the exam years, conversations on this subject come up as each individual family grapples with the issues.

How we can help our teens manage phones and social media better

This is my take on how we can introduce our children to the connected world in their pocket in a way that's better for their mental health, concentration and boundaries.

1. Don't let them on social media until the minimum age

Most social media companies say in their terms and conditions that children shouldn't be signed up to use them until they're 13, and for Whatsapp it's 16. This is because there is plenty of adult and unsuitable content that is simply unsuitable for children younger than this to see, that can't be parcelled off and kept away from the eyes of children. This is horrifically illustrated by the example of Molly Russell, who took her own life at the age of 14 after viewing content about self-harm and suicide on Instagram and Pinterest. In fact, this example shows that even people above the minimum age aren't necessarily equipped to deal with all the things they might find, be drawn to and see on social media.

As parents, we need to think very carefully about whether our children are ready for the big bad world of social media. We wouldn't let them visit a strip-club or drug den, so why do we think it's OK to let them loose to see absolutely anything on social media?

2. Set boundaries around social media

Most teenagers are going to kick-back around boundaries being set. But, actually, many of them are quite grateful when you do because they can blame you as a parent when they're not on Snapchat at 2 am, rather than take responsibility themselves for not being part of the ‘in-crowd'.

The minimum boundaries I would set are:

  • No phone in the room at night when they should be sleeping. I've met students who admit to still being awake at 2 am on Snapchat. This is quite clearly not healthy. If they need an alarm, get them an alarm clock. For more information on helping your teen get a good night's sleep check out this podcast episode.
  • No phone at mealtimes with the family – this is crucial to establish good communication and connection as a family.
  • Unless they're using a revision app on their phone, the phone should not be in the room with them when they're studying. It's been proven that simply having the phone in the room with you is a distraction that lowers the quality of concentration.

Other boundaries would be around things like:

  • Who they're allowed to connect with e.g. only people they've met in real life
  • What kind of details they're allowed to share about themselves
  • Whether their account is set to private so that random strangers can't see their account
  • The kinds of things they say in conversation e.g. don't say anything that you wouldn't say to someone's face, or, if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all

There are other much more knowledgeable people out there about how to stay safe online. I interviewed one of them, Simon Aston, for my podcast.

3. Educate your child about safe internet use

Schools do a pretty good job of this already, but the buck stops with us as parents. So, if you're letting your children lose online make sure they know that it's a wild west out there and what they should do if:

a) they see content that upsets them

b) they are bullied online

The best piece of advice here is to tell a trusted adult about what they've seen or experienced.

Ultimately, the desire to use social media is a desire for connection. Young people are using social media because they want to interact with others. A way to better satisfy this very human need is to make sure your teen has opportunities outside school to mix with their friends and peers face to face. Social media should just be a way of improving these real-life connections, not replacing them.

2. Teen mental health

When I walked out of the classroom for the last time ten years ago, I don't think I'd ever heard the phrase ‘teen mental health‘. Now it's everywhere, and it's really worrying. Of course, back then there were young people with mental health problems, but it wasn't the epidemic that it is now.

Last week I listened to a fascinating episode of the Feel Better, Life More podcast where the host, Dr Rangan Chatterjee, interviewed Johann Hari. Johann has travelled around the world interviewing experts from a variety of fields, from medicine, to psychology and anthropology, to try and understand the mental health epidemic that is facing our society today. I strongly recommend that you listen to the episode yourself (there are a few swear words in it, but it's really worth it).

In summary, what Johann has found is that depression and anxiety are way more than the biological problem that the medical profession tries to fix with pills. In fact, they have been caused by a breakdown in human society meaning that fundamental human needs aren't being met. I want to pick out three things that are important to understand and relevant to teens in particular from what Johann shared.

1. Biologically, we're social animals

If you think back to where human societies developed, as hunter-gatherers out in the wild, it's easy to see why we are social animals. Basically, we had to live in tribes and hunt in packs for our own safety. Both from other animals and from other competing groups of humans. If one of a tribe was cast adrift or found themselves alone, they were in danger. Therefore, the natural biological response was to get anxious and scared.

Nowadays, many of us are socially isolated or alone a lot of the time. Teenagers are often in their rooms, on their phones or Xbox or watching their own thing on Netflix, not watching the same thing as their parents downstairs which they might have done in the 1970s or 80s. Therefore, it's inevitable that they start to feel lonely, isolated and anxious; they're biologically programmed to feel this way.

2. We don't have enough face-to-face connection

Too much of our interaction is now virtual, or it doesn't exist at all. I can appreciate the irony of me saying this as the owner of an internet business, but it's true. I can see how life has changed since my own teenage years. Back then, it was much more normal for neighbours to pop round for a cup of tea, nobody sat around scrolling on their phones instead of doing something socially, or even picking up the phone and talking to someone, and communities seemed a lot more tight-knit.

As I said earlier, in the social media section, one of the key ways that we can protect our children from depression and anxiety is to make sure that their biological need for connection is fulfilled. Some practical suggestions include:

  • Making sure they take part in activities outside the home like sport, music or youth clubs
  • Getting them to invite friends round or do things with their friends outside school hours
  • Making sure you spend quality time as a family e.g. eating together (without phones) once per day and having a shared experience at the weekend e.g. going out and doing something together, playing a board game or going on a family walk. I know that my family is happiest when we're doing this kind of thing, rather than all attached to our separate screens in different rooms.

3. Lack of control over our own lives

The last thing that really chimes into the current teenage experience is that people who have jobs where they have little control over how they choose to do their jobs feel disempowered, disenfranchised and suffer mental health problems as a result. I think that the current education system has seriously taken personal choice and agency away from a lot of students.

The way the education system has evolved means that all students at GCSE level are being forced into studying many more academic subjects than they were ten or twenty years ago. The introduction of the English Baccalaureate has meant that arts and practical subjects have been devalued. The amount of work demanded of students by the harder exams has also given them less choice about how they spend their time: they either do what the system demands and succeed, or they do their own thing and fail. It's really not great for the self-esteem of a whole generation.

Ways that you can try to combat this are:

  • Make sure that your children chose GCSE and A Level options that they love. And, if there are opportunities to do more vocational courses like BTECs and they're right for you child, let them take those courses.
  • Make sure that your child has hobbies and past-times that they love and fill them up.
  • Empower them to take control of their studies as best they can. This is part of my mission in life – through my book, The Extraordinaries Club and my academic coaching practice I guide young people to finding a way of studying that works for them and helps them reach their potential, within the system that we all have to operate in.

3. Exams have got harder, schools are under more pressure

Since I left the classroom at the end of January 2010, there have been major changes to the education system.

The two big things which have affected teens are:

  • With new exam specifications, both GCSEs and A Levels have got harder
  • More pressure has been put on schools to teach more and harder content faster and better

It's a perfect storm, really.

The consequence in many schools has been that the pressure and stress put on headteachers by Ofsted / the government has trickled down to teachers and students. And, unfortunately, students haven't been given the tools to cope with these increased pressures and workloads.

I have been around the country speaking in schools and I've been told by teachers that they themselves don't really know how to revise. My colleague, Martin Griffin (listen to my podcast interview with him here), has made some significant progress in introducing his VESPA mindset model into a lot of schools and sixth forms, giving schools a framework to introduce non-cognitive study skills to students. But, I still see many, many students who simply have no idea how to:

  • organise themselves
  • organise their time
  • focus on their school work
  • revise

And, this creates huge feelings of self-doubt and fatalism (that's a word I've heard two students use in recent weeks about how they see their studies).

Now, there are signs of change. Ofsted is moving towards looking for a broader curriculum to be taught in schools, not picking options in year 8 and working towards GCSE exams from year 9. Schools who only offer a narrowly-focused, exams-based curriculum will be told that their teaching is ‘inadequate'.

In the meantime, it's my life's work to teach students how to effectively cope with the workload and demands being made on them so that they can believe in themselves and succeed, using study tools that work for them. If your child is struggling, click here to find out how I can help.

In conclusion

In the last ten years, I feel that we have been uncritically swept up in tides of change that have had unintended negative consequences for the young people in our families. It is my strong belief that all parents are leaders within their own families, and while we're waiting for government and society to make the top-down changes that we need to ‘right' the situation, we can reform the way our teenagers live and work in our own homes so that they can be happier, healthier and more successful again.

What do you think? Let me know in the comments below.

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