It’s difficult to reflect on 2020 so far without thinking about the internet. As millions of us were learning to live under lockdown, the internet coloured our interactions as it never had before, keeping many of us sane and in touch with our loved ones, allowing us to feel part of a whole even when alone in our homes. Yet before the pandemic, social media was often seen as a destroyer, as opposed to a maintainer, of mental health; a threat to the wellbeing of our children, a horseman heralding the demise of face-to-face communication, a distraction or a vehicle for abuse.
A new study, by researchers at the University of Bristol for the National Institute for Health Research School for Public Health Research, suggests that social media may have been beneficial for young people during lockdown. Perhaps surprisingly, the research, which surveyed more than 1,000 year 9 students from 17 secondary schools in south-west England, found that teenagers’ anxiety levels actually improved when schools closed during the coronavirus lockdown. “The fact that many of our participants were able to stay in touch with friends and wider family via social media may help explain why we did not see an overall increase in poor mental health and wellbeing,” the report states.
It makes sense: it’s about feeling connected, and even those who sneer at social media will have to admit it has given them that. Online, your social interactions are much more controllable and can feel far more comfortable, especially if you are a shy teenager. It confirms what I have long felt about the offline v the online “worlds”: that for generations who know no other way of being, the distinction no longer applies. A conversation may not take place in person, face-to-face, but it’s still a conversation. It can still make you smile and increase your sense of wellbeing.
The role that one’s environment can play in mental health will be clear to those of us who didn’t have a particularly happy time at school. There’s the relentlessness of the academic pressure, the fraught social relationships, concerns about body image and appearance, bullying and sexual harassment, to name just a few challenges students face. Above all, I recall the effort it took to conform, how any deviation, whether in something as seemingly small as a haircut or something as immutable as family background, can mark you out for negative attention. You almost forget, as an adult, how claustrophobic and rigid it can feel, how teachers’ authority often went unquestioned even when, in hindsight, it could be ruthless, unfair and even cruel.
It may sound as though I am painting a negative picture, but I’m not suggesting all schools are such awful places that their pupils would far rather be locked down at home, merely that every school will contain those pressures to some degree and their temporary relief will have been, to some pupils, a blessing. This has been confirmed by many of the teenagers I have talked to, who speak of having more time to be creative and spend time with their families – one 12-year-old said that being able to do art and see her pets made being away from school a positive experience.
“Since quarantine happened I have managed to keep up with work and I sleep much better,” Rose, 15, tells me. Before lockdown, she was stressed about schoolwork, as well as worrying that her stomach would rumble in class, and so would eat too much chocolate, which had an impact on her weight and skin. She feels healthier now. “Because I go to an all girls school I did compare myself to the really skinny girls and that didn’t help with how I felt. Now I don’t care as much about my appearance.”
The stress of feeling as though you’re under a microscope, whether because of how you look or behave or because of a relentless testing and exam regime, is hard to manage for anyone, let alone a child. This year’s annual Good Childhood Report found that children in the UK have the lowest levels of life satisfaction across Europe, with “a particularly British fear of failure” being cited alongside child poverty and school pressures as factors. It makes sense that a respite from these pressures will have given some children the opportunity to flourish.
Of course, there are vulnerable children for whom a retreat into the home environment will have been a source of immense distress, and pupils identifying as LGBTQ+ or who have a disability or health condition, who already had poorer mental health, did not enjoy the same improvements to their mental health during lockdown, the study found. As well as looking at how to prevent a return to pre-pandemic anxiety levels when they reopen, schools must do more to support these students.
A teacher I spoke to during lockdown expressed her concerns about the long-term educational legacy of this time spent out of school. Will adults look back on the gaps in their knowledge and skills, and say, “That was my Covid year,” she wondered. I also expect this year will come to mean many different things to many different children. It might also be “the year I got to see more of Dad”, or “the year I stopped worrying about my weight”, “the year I learned to draw a tree”, or “the year I fell in love over Whatsapp”. Such has been the emphasis on returning to school, there is a risk that all the benefits of not being at school will be forgotten. Lockdown may be over, but we can take its wellbeing lessons with us.
• Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a Guardian columnist
Read the original article at The Guardian