Social media and children’s mental health

In a new report from the Education Policy Institute, Emily Firth has examined the evidence of the impact of using social media on young people’s mental health and emotional well-being.

One of the key findings from the report is evidence of a beneficial impact. This is because young people can connect with others to improve their social skills online, develop their character and resilience and collaborate on school projects. In the recent PISA well-being survey of 15-year-olds, 90.5% of boys and 92.3% of girls in the UK agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “It is very useful to have social networks on the internet”. Also, importantly, those with mental health problems are able to use the internet to seek support, either through social media networks or through the online provision of advice and counseling support. For example, 78% of young people contacting the organisation Childline now do so online.

However, the report also highlights several negative effects on the well-being of young people linked with social media, including cyber-bullying, concerns about excessive use and sharing of private information and harmful content. It also finds that attempts to restrict children’s internet access are likely to be counterproductive as they hinder the development of vital skills needed to counter such risks. Rather than seeking to protect young people from all online risks­, the report calls on policy makers to promote proactive measures that build resilience in children, in order to help them lead safe digital lives.

Source: Social media and children’s mental health: a review of the evidence (June 2017) Education Policy Institute

How happy are our students?

Students’ well-being: PISA 2015 results analyses pupils’ motivation to perform well in school, their relationships with peers and teachers, their home life and how they spend their time outside of school. The findings are based on a survey of 540,000 pupils in 72 participating Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries and economies.

The study found that pupils in the UK are among the least happy – ranking 38th out of the 48 OECD countries – with the US ranking slightly higher at 29th. On average, 15-year-old pupils in the US reported a level of 7.4 on a life satisfaction scale ranging from 0 to 10 (the OECD average was 7.3).

As in the majority of countries, boys in the UK and the US reported higher life satisfaction than girls (0.7 points higher for UK; 0.6 points higher for US; OECD average = 0.6).

Pupils in both the UK and the US reported higher levels of schoolwork-related anxiety than the OECD average. The study found 72% of UK pupils and 68% of US pupils felt anxious about tests, even when they were well-prepared for them, compared to the OECD average of 55%. And 61% of pupils in the US and 67% in the UK worry about getting poor grades at school.

Bullying is also an issue, particularly for the UK, with 25% of UK pupils and 19% of US pupils reporting that they are victims of one act of bullying at least a few times a month, compared to the OECD average of 19%.

Source: PISA 2015 results (volume III): students’ well-being (April 2017), OECD

Promoting emotional health, well-being, and resilience in primary schools

A new report from the Public Policy Institute for Wales synthesises research and policy evaluations related to school-based strategies to promote emotional health, well-being, and resilience among primary school students aged 4 to 11 years.

The report argues that school-based work in this area can be very effective, and school systems need to be strongly connected with each other in order to translate the research evidence into sustained impact. While work on emotional health and well-being is relevant to all students, some children are likely to have additional needs. These children often come from high-risk groups that can be identified, for example, those who have socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds.

The report’s overarching recommendation is to develop a carefully planned and well-supported approach to social and emotional learning (SEL) that is integrated with core pedagogical principles and situated within a connected school. It also calls for an independent evaluation of a Welsh initiative on SEL that is designed to support emotional health, well-being, and resilience. Importantly, the focus should not be on developing an entirely new SEL curriculum or new teaching resources, since many evidence-based programs with high-quality resources already exist. Rather, the emphasis should be on identifying specific strategies for integrating SEL work, engaging families, and broader schools systems and core pedagogical principles.

Source: Promoting Emotional Health, Well-being and Resilience in Primary Schools (2016), Public Policy Institute for Wales.

Mental wellness in early childhood

Child Trends has released a new research brief on mental wellness in early childhood. Using research from various sources such as university publications, journal articles, and government websites, they identify five “things to know” to help parents and caregivers lay a solid foundation for healthy childhood development.

  1. Infants experience and perceive a range of emotions. Caregivers may underestimate the degree to which infants’ social-emotional development is affected by early experiences. Although infants as young as six months can “begin to sense and be affected by their parents’ moods,” fewer than 35% of caregivers believe that infants are capable of experiencing emotions in this way.
  2.  Early positive interactions promote emotional wellness throughout the lifespan. Interactions between caregivers and infants are critically important, as “neural connections are formed through the interaction of genes and a baby’s environment and experiences,” especially through communication with caregivers.
  3. Having appropriate expectations of young children’s development is important. Emotional development is a critical component of brain development that is not always emphasised as much as cognitive, physical, or verbal development. Each person’s development is unique, but caregivers should understand general social-emotional milestones – such as copying caregivers’ actions – in order to keep expectations appropriate and monitor potential red flags.
  4.  Parents and caregivers should be mindful of their own emotional well-being, seeking support if they need it. Caregivers who effectively treat their mental illness may lower the effects of the illness on their children.
  5. Young children are resilient and, if properly supported, can overcome potentially traumatic events. Young children may be able to overcome the effects of adverse events through consistent, predictable, supportive interactions.
 
Source: Five Things to Know about Mental Wellness in Early Childhood (2015), Child Trends.

Unearned cash provides more than a financial boost

A new working paper from the US National Bureau of Economic Research examines the effect of changes in unearned household income on children’s personality traits and mental health, and concludes that increases in unearned money have a significant positive effect on children’s social and emotional well-being.

The authors used data from The Great Smoky Mountains Study of Youth (GSMS), a longitudinal survey of 1,420 North Carolina children who were aged 9, 11, and 13 at the start of the study. Children and parents were interviewed separately each year until the child was 16. The young people were then also interviewed at 19 and 21. The GSMS was specifically created to assess mental health and well-being in children.

The initial survey contained 1,070 non-Indian children, and 350 American Indian children from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, who were over sampled. The survey began in 1993, and after the fourth year, a casino opened on the Eastern Cherokee reservation. The casino is owned by the Eastern Cherokee tribal government, and a portion of the profits (approximately $4,000 per year) is distributed twice a year to all adult tribal members.

The authors found large beneficial effects of improved household finances on children’s emotional and behavioural health and positive personality trait development, especially for children who were lagging behind their peers in these measures before the intervention.

They suggest this could be due to improved parental outlook, mental health, and happiness, and note that parental relationships with children and with their spouses/partners also improved. They also found that households that received the casino payments were more likely to move to slightly better areas (in terms of median household income), and suggest that at least some of the improvement in the child behavioural and personality traits could be explained by better community amenities in higher income areas.

Source: How Does Household Income Affect Child Personality Traits and Behaviors? (2015), NBER.

Teenage onset obesity linked to school dropout

A new article in the Journal of School Health has shown that becoming obese during early adolescence increases the risk of school dropout.

Data on 5,066 children was obtained from the 1979 National Longitudinal Study of Youth, a longitudinal project that follows a sample of people in the US born between 1957 and 1964. Each wave of assessment included participants’ obesity status (BMI) and school enrollment status.

The study identified four trajectories of obesity from ages 6 to 18: (1) A non-obese group, (2) a chronically obese group with individuals who were obese in both childhood and adolescence, (3) decreasing trajectory (childhood-only obesity), and (4) increasing trajectory (adolescent-onset obesity). Adolescents belonging to the increasing trajectory group (adolescent-onset obesity) had a higher likelihood of dropping out of high school compared with those belonging to the other three groups.

The authors conclude that adolescent-onset obesity is a unique contributor to school failure. Although the reasons for this are unknown, they suggest that the high significance placed on social status during early adolescence combined with significant physiological changes as a result of puberty may have an especially adverse impact on those becoming obese during this transitional period. They also suggest that becoming obese during adolescence (as opposed to childhood) may be a disadvantage due to having less time to develop adaptive coping strategies.

The study also showed ethnicity playing a significant role, with white teenagers who become obese during adolescence particularly vulnerable to school dropout. The report suggests this may be explained by greater social stigma being placed on white versus African-American or Latino adolescents becoming obese.

Source: Is Obesity Associated With School Dropout? Key Developmental and Ethnic Differences (2015), Journal of School Health, 85(10).