Are kids today more stressed than they have been in the past? Mental health services are certainly more prominent in schools than ever before. You hear about stress management on the news. You see schools and businesses advertising self-care and mental health services. Why?
Youth stress levels are not necessarily higher than they used to be. Kids in school today do have their share of unique stressors. COVID-19, cyberbullying, professional educational shortages, and shifting curriculums all contribute to children’s stress loads.
However, today’s kids certainly didn’t invent stress. They are simply benefitting from a culture that is more willing to acknowledge and address it.
In this article, we take a broad look at the mental health-related challenges facing today’s youth.
The Covid Context
We mentioned COVID-19 in the introduction. Nearly three years since the height of the pandemic, it’s natural for some readers to view this concern with a degree of skepticism. Kids no longer have mask mandates. Remote learning hasn’t been a major thing for two years. Are kids today really still impacted by the pandemic?
While most students probably aren’t terribly worried about the risk of infection, they are still experiencing the ramifications of 1-2 years being removed from the classroom. Not only did lockdowns cause many kids to fall significantly behind in school, but it also resulted in social isolation that continues to underscore some students’ experiences with in-person learning.
Some experts suggest that the pandemic set students back an entire year. That’s not the same thing as saying it will take them a year to catch up socially and educationally. After all, coursework since Covid ended hasn’t strictly been a question of playing catchup.
The return to normal has been gradual. Children are still trying to recover social connections and get back to where they would have been academically.
The destabilizing conditions of 1-2 years of social isolation continues to be a source of stress for some kids. That’s not even taking into account the trauma that those who experienced loss or illness during the pandemic suffered from.
Kids are durable, but at the same time, major stressors (you know, like a once-per-century pandemic) can take time to recover from. It may be ten or more years before educational analysts truly understand the full impact COVID-19 had on school children.
For now, however, teachers and school guidance counselors are still working to help kids get back on track.
Cyberbullying is a significant risk that most children will encounter at some point in their academic careers. About 40% of students report having been on the receiving end of cyberbullying, while almost 100% acknowledge having witnessed it or participated in it at some point.
Here’s the nefarious thing: the majority of kids don’t think it’s a big deal until they are the ones experiencing it. While around 95% of people say that mean comments online are meant only as a joke, those on the receiving end of that joke are almost twice as likely to have thoughts of suicide.
Cyberbullying can be harder to handle than in-person encounters for two reasons:
- It happens in front of more people: If someone calls you a name in the hallway, there is a very finite number of people who will hear the comment. Online, that number can amplify into hundreds or even thousands of witnesses. What’s more, the reaction to those comments is public. You can see if people make comments, or “like” the remark.
- It reaches you at home: Cyberbullying also eliminates the potential for a safe having a safe space. Kids from just one or two generations ago could get away from tormentors by going home. Cyberbullying makes it so that you can be reached by cruel comments anywhere.
While cyberbullying is an extremely prominent source of stress in the lives of modern students, awareness initiatives are generally very effective at slowing it down. Educators know that the vast majority of children do not want to harm their peers.
Educating kids about the negative impacts of cyberbullying is shown to go a long way toward slowing it down.
Tech Induced Stress
It’s also important to keep in mind that kids today are growing up in a rapidly evolving educational and professional climate. The world is being reshaped by digital technology in a way that overwhelmingly favors mechanical or technical skills.
Schools are responding to this by emphasizing STEM-related programs. This shift toward more technical-related skills is overall a positive thing. However, it does not favor all types of learners.
What’s more, this increasing emphasis on digital technology is naturally exposing kids to excessive amounts of screen time.
Experts overwhelmingly agree that children should limit their screen time to no more than two hours a day. That includes reading, playing games, watching television, etc. But with tablets and laptops in every classroom, many kids exceed that number while they are still at school.
Then they go home, do more school work, and relax— often with the further assistance of a screen. While this may sound relatively harmless, excessive screen time is strongly associated with depression, anxiety, and even addiction.
Kids who become addicted to their devices are more likely to experience a wide range of challenging mental and emotional health issues.
Unfortunately, there are limits to what can be done about tech-induced stress. Classrooms are now heavily reliant on digital technology, and most kids will require access to their devices to complete school assignments.
Parents, counselors, and educators aren’t completely powerless, though. School-aged children will still benefit from careful monitoring of their online time. It’s also important to look for recreational options that do not involve digital technology.
Reading, outdoor time, and exercise are all great ways to keep children active while helping to avoid excessive screen time.
As with so many other stressors currently impacting children, kids will ultimately benefit the most from regular check-ins. Talk to your kids. Find out what is causing them stress, and work out solutions that you find mutually suitable.