Remote education is decreasing anxiety, increasing wellbeing for some students

A recent NIHR report found that students with previously low connectedness scores saw improvement in well-being and eased anxiety.

Remote education is decreasing anxiety, increasing wellbeing for some students

A student raises her hand during a remote education session.

  • With coronavirus resurging in Europe and the United States, parents are worried about their children's well-being and mental health.
  • A report from the U.K.'s NIHR extends some hope; it found that students' mental health is improving while remote learning.
  • Parents will continue play an important role in supporting their children's mental health.

As coronavirus cases resurge, European states have begun the second round of shutdowns and business closures. Across the Atlantic, 10 million people have been infected in the U.S., and rates of new infections continue to climb while the country waits to see how leadership will respond after a contentious election.

This leaves children and teens in with a bitter lot. During this period of life, they're developing the knowledge and social skills that will serve them in their future pursuits, yet the pandemic has either stripped them of these critical connections or diluted the potency of such interactions through the hazy blue light of a computer monitor. Add to that the mental stressors of massive upheaval and unknowns, and it's little wonder that parents, teachers, and community leaders are worried about young people.

But according to a survey performed by the National Institute for Health Research, the kids are doing all right. By some metrics, they've been doing better in our era of lockdowns and remote education.

Shining under pressure

U.K. showed a reduction of at-risk depression scores during the pandemic lockdown.

Credit: NIHR

"The Young People's Mental Health during the COVID-19 Pandemic" report surveyed more than 1,000 Year 9 students (ages 13 to 14) in the United Kingdom. This ongoing study aims to chronicle the relationship between social media use and adolescents' mental health. Because the study participants took the initial survey in October 2019, researchers were able to compare the students' pre-pandemic baseline with their responses several months into lockdown. (Schools closed in the U.K. in mid-March; follow-up surveys were completed in April and May.)

The researchers discovered that mental health among the U.K.'s adolescents has, surprisingly, improved during these trying times. Although 90 percent of students agreed that COVID-19 is a serious issue, their responses indicated an overall decrease in their risk of anxiety, an increase in their well-being, and no major changes to their risk of depression.

The most improvement was seen in students struggling with poor mental health. Students with low well-being scores in October last year showed a 10-point gain on the Warwick-Edinburgh Wellbeing Scale; meanwhile, students with previously average-to-high well-being scores showed no significant change. Students at risk of anxiety and depression also showed small advances in their Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale scores. The only group showing a heightened risk of depression were girls, and the difference was slight.

What caused this mental uplift among U.K. youth? While the study does not attempt to answer that question, the researchers speculate it may be "due to the removal of stressors within the school environment, such as pressure of academic work, and challenging peer relationships including bullying."

Another possibility is that this cohort's pandemic stressors are more externally focused. They cited their top three concerns as worrying their friends or family would catch the disease, worrying over friends and family's mental health, and worrying about missed school. Far fewer were anxious about catching the disease or the lockdown's effect on their friendships, job prospects, or the larger economy.

Maintaining critical connections

The researchers asked about students' connectedness with school, peers, and family, too. Students reported an increased connection with school and no change in their relationships with friends and family. Those with the lowest connectedness scores in the baseline survey again saw the greatest gains in well-being scores and anxiety reduction scores. And, of course, social media use has supersized.

The researchers write, "As schools fully re-open, it is important to consider ways to prevent a rise in anxiety back to pre-pandemic levels."

There are limitations to the study, however, and we should be careful not to extrapolate these data too broadly. Younger children, the researchers note, do not have the same level of access to social media as their older peers nor are their vital social interactions as easily digitized. The playground cannot be translated into text and emojis with the same fidelity as the lunchroom clump. As a consequence, younger children may be experiencing a very different pandemic. That may also be true for young people undergoing transitional periods in their life.

Nor did the researchers see the same improvements in vulnerable student populations, such as LGBTQ teens and those with disabilities. These students reported higher anxiety and depression scores pre-pandemic and did not see the same improvements in the pandemic follow-up survey. This outcome suggested to the researchers that these students continued to experience stressors even when not attending school physically.

Finally, there's no indication that teens in other countries will face the pandemic the same. In countries with weaker social safety nets, such as the U.S., students may be far more worried about the virus's impact on their health and future prospects.

Love in the time of COVID

The National Institute for Health Research's report showing young teens are more resilient than adults may give them credit, but it bases its findings on student responses from mere months into the pandemic. Unfortunately, we won't know how remote education and prolonged shutdowns will affect them until they've been experienced. This reality means parents still play a critical role in supporting their children's mental health.

Parents looking for strategies can find resources at The Centers for Disease Control, the Johns Hopkins Children's Center, and other health institute websites. In general, experts recommend keeping adolescents on a routine that supports learning, exercise, and social connection. This schedule should lead them to accomplish goals, partake in their interests, and engage with social activities—even if those social engagements must be taken online.

Yes, screen time will increase but parents need to remember that not all screen time is created equal. There's a difference between screen time dedicated to, say, playing board games with friends versus mindlessly wandering the social media wastes. Parents will still need to incorporate boundaries and converse regularly with teens on what information they are receiving about coronavirus and the pandemic.

As Nilu Rahman, Johns Hopkins Children's Center senior child life specialist, said: "Teens have great access to the internet and some of what they're reading about the coronavirus and the pandemic might be scaring them, even if they don't say so." Rahman added that "parents should make sure kids are not going down rabbit holes and getting confused or frightened by false information."

Parents should also remain alert for changes in behavior, as these may signal boosted stress or other underlying mental health concerns. Rahman recommends parents look out for extreme eating habits, changes in sleep patterns, signs of self-harm, increased isolation, or their children not enjoying their favorite hobbies and past times.

"Parents know their children best," she says, "so if something seems off about their teen, they should trust their instinct and find out what's going on, especially if the child has a history of depression or anxiety."

Iron Age discoveries uncovered outside London, including a ‘murder’ victim

A man's skeleton, found facedown with his hands bound, was unearthed near an ancient ceremonial circle during a high speed rail excavation project.

Photo Credit: HS2
Culture & Religion
  • A skeleton representing a man who was tossed face down into a ditch nearly 2,500 years ago with his hands bound in front of his hips was dug up during an excavation outside of London.
  • The discovery was made during a high speed rail project that has been a bonanza for archaeology, as the area is home to more than 60 ancient sites along the planned route.
  • An ornate grave of a high status individual from the Roman period and an ancient ceremonial circle were also discovered during the excavations.
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Are we really addicted to technology?

Fear that new technologies are addictive isn't a modern phenomenon.

Credit: Rodion Kutsaev via Unsplash
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink, which has partnered with the Build for Tomorrow podcast to go inside new episodes each month. Subscribe here to learn more about the crazy, curious things from history that shaped us, and how we can shape the future.

In many ways, technology has made our lives better. Through smartphones, apps, and social media platforms we can now work more efficiently and connect in ways that would have been unimaginable just decades ago.

But as we've grown to rely on technology for a lot of our professional and personal needs, most of us are asking tough questions about the role technology plays in our own lives. Are we becoming too dependent on technology to the point that it's actually harming us?

In the latest episode of Build for Tomorrow, host and Entrepreneur Editor-in-Chief Jason Feifer takes on the thorny question: is technology addictive?

Popularizing medical language

What makes something addictive rather than just engaging? It's a meaningful distinction because if technology is addictive, the next question could be: are the creators of popular digital technologies, like smartphones and social media apps, intentionally creating things that are addictive? If so, should they be held responsible?

To answer those questions, we've first got to agree on a definition of "addiction." As it turns out, that's not quite as easy as it sounds.

If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people.

LIAM SATCHELL UNIVERSITY OF WINCHESTER

"Over the past few decades, a lot of effort has gone into destigmatizing conversations about mental health, which of course is a very good thing," Feifer explains. It also means that medical language has entered into our vernacular —we're now more comfortable using clinical words outside of a specific diagnosis.

"We've all got that one friend who says, 'Oh, I'm a little bit OCD' or that friend who says, 'Oh, this is my big PTSD moment,'" Liam Satchell, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Winchester and guest on the podcast, says. He's concerned about how the word "addiction" gets tossed around by people with no background in mental health. An increased concern surrounding "tech addiction" isn't actually being driven by concern among psychiatric professionals, he says.

"These sorts of concerns about things like internet use or social media use haven't come from the psychiatric community as much," Satchell says. "They've come from people who are interested in technology first."

The casual use of medical language can lead to confusion about what is actually a mental health concern. We need a reliable standard for recognizing, discussing, and ultimately treating psychological conditions.

"If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people," Satchell says. That's why, according to Satchell, the psychiatric definition of addiction being based around experiencing distress or significant family, social, or occupational disruption needs to be included in any definition of addiction we may use.

Too much reading causes... heat rashes?

But as Feifer points out in his podcast, both popularizing medical language and the fear that new technologies are addictive aren't totally modern phenomena.

Take, for instance, the concept of "reading mania."

In the 18th Century, an author named J. G. Heinzmann claimed that people who read too many novels could experience something called "reading mania." This condition, Heinzmann explained, could cause many symptoms, including: "weakening of the eyes, heat rashes, gout, arthritis, hemorrhoids, asthma, apoplexy, pulmonary disease, indigestion, blocking of the bowels, nervous disorder, migraines, epilepsy, hypochondria, and melancholy."

"That is all very specific! But really, even the term 'reading mania' is medical," Feifer says.

"Manic episodes are not a joke, folks. But this didn't stop people a century later from applying the same term to wristwatches."

Indeed, an 1889 piece in the Newcastle Weekly Courant declared: "The watch mania, as it is called, is certainly excessive; indeed it becomes rabid."

Similar concerns have echoed throughout history about the radio, telephone, TV, and video games.

"It may sound comical in our modern context, but back then, when those new technologies were the latest distraction, they were probably really engaging. People spent too much time doing them," Feifer says. "And what can we say about that now, having seen it play out over and over and over again? We can say it's common. It's a common behavior. Doesn't mean it's the healthiest one. It's just not a medical problem."

Few today would argue that novels are in-and-of-themselves addictive — regardless of how voraciously you may have consumed your last favorite novel. So, what happened? Were these things ever addictive — and if not, what was happening in these moments of concern?

People are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm.

JASON FEIFER HOST OF BUILD FOR TOMORROW

There's a risk of pathologizing normal behavior, says Joel Billieux, professor of clinical psychology and psychological assessment at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, and guest on the podcast. He's on a mission to understand how we can suss out what is truly addictive behavior versus what is normal behavior that we're calling addictive.

For Billieux and other professionals, this isn't just a rhetorical game. He uses the example of gaming addiction, which has come under increased scrutiny over the past half-decade. The language used around the subject of gaming addiction will determine how behaviors of potential patients are analyzed — and ultimately what treatment is recommended.

"For a lot of people you can realize that the gaming is actually a coping (mechanism for) social anxiety or trauma or depression," says Billieux.

"Those cases, of course, you will not necessarily target gaming per se. You will target what caused depression. And then as a result, If you succeed, gaming will diminish."

In some instances, a person might legitimately be addicted to gaming or technology, and require the corresponding treatment — but that treatment might be the wrong answer for another person.

"None of this is to discount that for some people, technology is a factor in a mental health problem," says Feifer.

"I am also not discounting that individual people can use technology such as smartphones or social media to a degree where it has a genuine negative impact on their lives. But the point here to understand is that people are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm."

Behavioral addiction is a notoriously complex thing for professionals to diagnose — even more so since the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the book professionals use to classify mental disorders, introduced a new idea about addiction in 2013.

"The DSM-5 grouped substance addiction with gambling addiction — this is the first time that substance addiction was directly categorized with any kind of behavioral addiction," Feifer says.

"And then, the DSM-5 went a tiny bit further — and proposed that other potentially addictive behaviors require further study."

This might not sound like that big of a deal to laypeople, but its effect was massive in medicine.

"Researchers started launching studies — not to see if a behavior like social media use can be addictive, but rather, to start with the assumption that social media use is addictive, and then to see how many people have the addiction," says Feifer.

Learned helplessness

The assumption that a lot of us are addicted to technology may itself be harming us by undermining our autonomy and belief that we have agency to create change in our own lives. That's what Nir Eyal, author of the books Hooked and Indistractable, calls 'learned helplessness.'

"The price of living in a world with so many good things in it is that sometimes we have to learn these new skills, these new behaviors to moderate our use," Eyal says. "One surefire way to not do anything is to believe you are powerless. That's what learned helplessness is all about."

So if it's not an addiction that most of us are experiencing when we check our phones 90 times a day or are wondering about what our followers are saying on Twitter — then what is it?

"A choice, a willful choice, and perhaps some people would not agree or would criticize your choices. But I think we cannot consider that as something that is pathological in the clinical sense," says Billieux.

Of course, for some people technology can be addictive.

"If something is genuinely interfering with your social or occupational life, and you have no ability to control it, then please seek help," says Feifer.

But for the vast majority of people, thinking about our use of technology as a choice — albeit not always a healthy one — can be the first step to overcoming unwanted habits.

For more, be sure to check out the Build for Tomorrow episode here.

Why the U.S. and Belgium are culture buddies

The Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural map replaces geographic accuracy with closeness in terms of values.

According to the latest version of the Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural Map, Belgium and the United States are now each other's closest neighbors in terms of cultural values.

Credit: World Values Survey, public domain.
Strange Maps
  • This map replaces geography with another type of closeness: cultural values.
  • Although the groups it depicts have familiar names, their shapes are not.
  • The map makes for strange bedfellows: Brazil next to South Africa and Belgium neighboring the U.S.
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