The practice of remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in both highlights and challenges. While across the United Kingdom, school closures have provided teenagers with a unique opportunity to explore their mental health and wellbeing when not in in-person school; about 3 in 10 parents across the globe have complained about their child experiencing emotional or mental harm due to school closures.
Quite unexpectedly, a recent survey of Year 9 students in the southwest of England revealed that during the COVID-19 lockdown, there has been an overall reduction in anxiety and an increase in wellbeing in young people aged 13 to 14. This study questioned the true effects of the school environment on the mental health and wellbeing of young teenagers.
The conclusions of this study suggest that not attending school during the lockdown phase may have protected the students from several typical factors which can affect mental health, such as the pressures of schoolwork, bullying, and negotiating relationships with peers and with teachers. Several students felt more connected to school during the lockdown as they were away from the stresses of conventional school and teachers may have found new and improved ways to teach and communicate with them during lockdown. Undoubtedly, it is one of the major demands for the school to reflect on the changes that have been introduced during the lockdown phase and shed some light on whether these practices should be continued or not.
In parallel, as the pandemic continues, it’s evident that many of the kids are not doing well in this situation. Michael Rich, associate professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, says “‘Unmoored’ is the best way I can describe it” as he has seen a rise in young patients’ with anxiety and depression during the pandemic phase. Rich added, “They don’t feel like getting up and going to another class on Zoom. They don’t feel like finishing their college applications.” According to him, schools should utilize the virtual platform to build new relationships between teachers and students- “Not just one where kids can get help with algebra, but where kids are talking to teachers about what’s going on.”
In the case of Maya Green, a 18 year-old graduate from the Charleston County School of the Arts, a magnet school, she struggled with the same emotions as her fellow seniors- she missed her friends, struggled to stay focused, and found her online assignments to be too easy. She said, “My school doesn’t do a ton of lessons on social and emotional learning. But I grew up in this creative writing program, and I’m really close to my teachers there and we had at least one purposeful conversation about my emotions after we moved online.” With a sudden suspension of in-person learning, many students missed their friends, yearned to be out of the house, and developed irregular sleep schedules.
Students with disabilities have also complained that access to equitable education has been abandoned during the sudden shift to online classes. Above that, parents have also stated how their young ones are dealing with the trauma of sick or dying family members, economic deprivation, and a desire to return to the normal life they led.
Additionally, students in different time zones than their institutions have been sacrificing sleep to wake up for the online classes on Zoom. Matthew Walker, a sleep scientist at Google and professor of neuroscience at the University of California at Berkeley, explained how a lack of sleep can lead to several outcomes in his research article titled, “The Sleep-deprived Human Brain”. According to Walker, lack of sleep results in deficits of the prefrontal cortex, which generally controls our amygdala, the emotional and impulse region of the brain. Divisha Jaiswal, an international sophomore student from India, stated how the switch to remote learning has resulted in a significant increase in personal electronic usage.
In an interview with the Johns Hopkins Newsletter, Dr. Laura Sterni, Director of the Hopkins Pediatric Sleep Center said, “The risk is that the technology becomes all-consuming and, as a sleep-doctor, I worry most about the potential negative impact on sleep.” To encourage rest, Sterni added, “ Be sure to turn off your electronics and do something relaxing the hour before bed- read a book, listen to music.”
Jennifer Katzenstein, Director of Psychology and Neuropsychology at the Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, has observed how remote learning has impacted children of all ages. Particularly college students are struggling to create an environment free of distractions and maintain the necessary organizational skills to ensure parity in their assignments, noting that such difficulties can affect students’ mental health.
In the current pandemic situation, schools will always have a major role in supporting young peoples’ lives and hence, schools must ensure that the environments that they cultivate are supportive of teenage mental health and wellbeing in the future.