Pupils are uniquely stressed these days

by therealityofschool

When I read of head teachers claiming that their pupils are ‘more stressed than ever’ and suffering mental illness on an unprecedented scale, several thoughts occur…..

1 My parents were at school during the Second World War, their fathers out of the country for 6 years fighting the Nazis.  Were they not ‘uniquely stressed’?  If not, why not?  Come to that, what about the 18 year olds actually fighting the war?  Is there an issue with our pupils lacking resilience?

2 Schools have been dealing with problems such as anorexia amongst girls for many years; this, at least, is not a new phenomenon.

3 If you send a questionnaire to pupils or staff asking them if they are stressed, most will say they are more stressed than ever.  I have done it.

4 When I started teaching in boys’ schools we did not take much notice of mental health issues.  Now we do, employing counsellors, psychologists and psychiatrists.  So the problems are much more visible.   Take ADHD – in the past pupils who could not focus were classified as ‘naughty’ and brought into line.  Then the problem was medicalised and given a name.  So now schools refer pupils to psychiatrists for a diagnosis, they are placed on a special needs register and given drugs.  It is more visible.

5 This is part of a more general trend towards treating every pupil as an individual.  Schools often say that their aim is ‘to develop the potential of every individual child’.  Every maintained-school child is classified by age, gender, ethnicity, ability, parental income and special needs, and exam results are broken down accordingly.  Teachers are expected to differentiate between different children when teaching them.  We care more about individuals.

The tendency to claim that school children are uniquely stressed is accompanied by similar claims about adults.  The number of work-related cases of stress in the UK  in 2014 was 444,000 according to the Health and Safety Executive, up from 428,000 two years earlier.  This epidemic has been accompanied by the growth of a vast stress-management industry which promotes the use of mindfulness, breathing techniques, massage, meditation and Zumba classes.  The NHS prescribed 53 million packs of antidepressants last year.  This despite the fact that work hours have never been shorter, working conditions better,  holidays longer, living standards higher than at any point in the past.

The medicalisation of stress is acting to increase the number of patients suffering from it.  It creates an attitude of learned helplessness and encourages pupils to think that school is damaging their health and makes adults think work is bad for them when the opposite is true.  Stress is an emotion which enables us to cope with the many challenges of school, work and life.  It is a valuable part of our make-up.

But if we assume that pupils today are ‘uniquely stressed’, what might be the cause of that?

Not exam pressure.  There is no more exam pressure now than 20 years ago (unless parents and schools are causing it).  It has never been easier to gain high grades, never easier to get into a good university, never easier (for the top 80%) to get a job.  Key Stage 3 tests have gone, GCSE resits have gone, GCSE and A-level modules have gone – so the number of exams being sat has been greatly reduced.

It might be caused by online social media.  All the research so far suggests that social networking is both highly addictive and damaging to teenagers’ well-being [i] [ii], a bit like cigarettes.  Social networking feeds into the natural narcissism of adolescents [iii]  but interestingly, it is also linked to low self-esteem.[iv]  Social networking allows children to create identities which allow them to be more rude, more sexy, more adventurous and indulge in inappropriate behaviour. [v]  Sherry Turtle explains in her book Alone Together that the more connected you are online the more isolated you feel.[vi]  Social media provides an unparalleled platform for social comparison and envy.[vii]

Excessive internet use is also linked to a reduced ability to empathise with people and poor communications skills including difficulty in interpreting facial expressions.  [viii]  At Cornell University Michael Waldman, Sean Nicholson and Nodir Adilov have shown links between screen use and the development of autism. [ix]  Cyberbullying is rife. [x]

If this is the case, then the solutions are plain enough:

1 Tell parents that they must not allow their children to have a smartphone before they are 16.  A basic mobile is enough.

2 Tell parents they must not allow their children to have a Facebook account until they are 16.  Yes, some responsible parents do this!  If the whole school community can establish this as a priority, providing parents with the school support they need, it can happen.

3 Tell parents they must not allow their children to have a computer, tablet etc in their bedroom.  The computer will be in a public place so its use can be monitored.  The computer will have security software and the parent can see exactly what their children have been doing.

4 Tell parents that their children must not be allowed to use a computer/tablet/video game for more than two hours a day.

In November 2015 Kate Winslet announced that she was banning her children from taking their devices to restaurants or having them at night. She places a big emphasis on playing board games, climbing trees, playing I-Spy on ling car journeys – anything other than endless attention to their smartphones.

Susan Greenfield (2014) makes three other recommendations:

1 Eat together as a family, no devices at the table.

2 Read young children stories.

3 Go outside into the natural environment.

How bad is stress?   We all know the answer to that – some stress is good, too much stress is bad.  Some stress is good because it is part and parcel of being motivated.  Hard to imagine boys doing well in an exam if stress hadn’t motivated them to revise.  Stress is part of life and experiencing stress while at school is preparation for that.  Too much stress is bad – it diminishes enjoyment and prevents people from functioning effectively.  So we need a balance, as in most things.

[i] Greenfield, Susan, Mind Change, 2014 . Professor Greenfield shows that social networking is enabling teenagers to create a fantasy image of themselves.  Our identity used to be generated internally; now identity is constructed externally as the fragile product of the continuous interaction with ‘friends’.

[ii] Mauri, M, Cipresso, P, Balgera, A, Villamira, M, Riva, G, 2011, Why is Facebook so successful?  Research which shows why Facebook is addictive.  Social networking releases dopamine into the brain.

McAfee, 2010, The secret online lives of teens.

[iii] Buffardi, L, Campbell, W, 2008, Narcissism and social networking wed sites.

Twenge, J, Konrath, S, Foster, J, Campbell, W, Bushman, B, 2008, Egos inflating over time: a cross-temporal meta-analysis of the narcissistic personality inventory. 

[iv] Tiggemann, M, and Miller, J, 2010, The internet and adolescent girls’ weight satisfaction and drive for thinness. 

[v] Kidscape, 2011, Young people’s cyber life survey.

[vi] Turkle, S, 2012, Alone Together: why we expect more from technology and less from each other.

[vii] Krasnova, H, Wenninger, H, Widjaja, T, Buxmann, P, 2013, Envy on Facebook: a hidden threat to users’ life satisfaction?

[viii] Engleberg,E, Sjoberg, L, 2004, Internet use, social skills and adjustment.

[ix] Waldman, M, Nicholson, S, Adilov, N, 2006, Does television cause autism?

[x] LeBlanc, J, 2012, Cyberbullying and suicide: a retrospective analysis of 22 cases.