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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.
- 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.
"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."
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Why mega-eruptions like the ones that covered North America in ash are the least of your worries.
- The supervolcano under Yellowstone produced three massive eruptions over the past few million years.
- Each eruption covered much of what is now the western United States in an ash layer several feet deep.
- The last eruption was 640,000 years ago, but that doesn't mean the next eruption is overdue.
The end of the world as we know it
Panoramic view of Yellowstone National Park
Image: Heinrich Berann for the National Park Service – public domain
Of the many freak ways to shuffle off this mortal coil – lightning strikes, shark bites, falling pianos – here's one you can safely scratch off your worry list: an outbreak of the Yellowstone supervolcano.
As the map below shows, previous eruptions at Yellowstone were so massive that the ash fall covered most of what is now the western United States. A similar event today would not only claim countless lives directly, but also create enough subsidiary disruption to kill off global civilisation as we know it. A relatively recent eruption of the Toba supervolcano in Indonesia may have come close to killing off the human species (see further below).
However, just because a scenario is grim does not mean that it is likely (insert topical political joke here). In this case, the doom mongers claiming an eruption is 'overdue' are wrong. Yellowstone is not a library book or an oil change. Just because the previous mega-eruption happened long ago doesn't mean the next one is imminent.
Ash beds of North America
Ash beds deposited by major volcanic eruptions in North America.
Image: USGS – public domain
This map shows the location of the Yellowstone plateau and the ash beds deposited by its three most recent major outbreaks, plus two other eruptions – one similarly massive, the other the most recent one in North America.
The Huckleberry Ridge eruption occurred 2.1 million years ago. It ejected 2,450 km3 (588 cubic miles) of material, making it the largest known eruption in Yellowstone's history and in fact the largest eruption in North America in the past few million years.
This is the oldest of the three most recent caldera-forming eruptions of the Yellowstone hotspot. It created the Island Park Caldera, which lies partially in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming and westward into Idaho. Ash from this eruption covered an area from southern California to North Dakota, and southern Idaho to northern Texas.
About 1.3 million years ago, the Mesa Falls eruption ejected 280 km3 (67 cubic miles) of material and created the Henry's Fork Caldera, located in Idaho, west of Yellowstone.
It was the smallest of the three major Yellowstone eruptions, both in terms of material ejected and area covered: 'only' most of present-day Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska, and about half of South Dakota.
The Lava Creek eruption was the most recent major eruption of Yellowstone: about 640,000 years ago. It was the second-largest eruption in North America in the past few million years, creating the Yellowstone Caldera.
It ejected only about 1,000 km3 (240 cubic miles) of material, i.e. less than half of the Huckleberry Ridge eruption. However, its debris is spread out over a significantly wider area: basically, Huckleberry Ridge plus larger slices of both Canada and Mexico, plus most of Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Missouri.
This eruption occurred about 760,000 years ago. It was centered on southern California, where it created the Long Valley Caldera, and spewed out 580 km3 (139 cubic miles) of material. This makes it North America's third-largest eruption of the past few million years.
The material ejected by this eruption is known as the Bishop ash bed, and covers the central and western parts of the Lava Creek ash bed.
Mount St Helens
The eruption of Mount St Helens in 1980 was the deadliest and most destructive volcanic event in U.S. history: it created a mile-wide crater, killed 57 people and created economic damage in the neighborhood of $1 billion.
Yet by Yellowstone standards, it was tiny: Mount St Helens only ejected 0.25 km3 (0.06 cubic miles) of material, most of the ash settling in a relatively narrow band across Washington State and Idaho. By comparison, the Lava Creek eruption left a large swathe of North America in up to two metres of debris.
The difference between quakes and faults
The volume of dense rock equivalent (DRE) ejected by the Huckleberry Ridge event dwarfs all other North American eruptions. It is itself overshadowed by the DRE ejected at the most recent eruption at Toba (present-day Indonesia). This was one of the largest known eruptions ever and a relatively recent one: only 75,000 years ago. It is thought to have caused a global volcanic winter which lasted up to a decade and may be responsible for the bottleneck in human evolution: around that time, the total human population suddenly and drastically plummeted to between 1,000 and 10,000 breeding pairs.
Image: USGS – public domain
So, what are the chances of something that massive happening anytime soon? The aforementioned mongers of doom often claim that major eruptions occur at intervals of 600,000 years and point out that the last one was 640,000 years ago. Except that (a) the first interval was about 200,000 years longer, (b) two intervals is not a lot to base a prediction on, and (c) those intervals don't really mean anything anyway. Not in the case of volcanic eruptions, at least.
Earthquakes can be 'overdue' because the stress on fault lines is built up consistently over long periods, which means quakes can be predicted with a relative degree of accuracy. But this is not how volcanoes behave. They do not accumulate magma at constant rates. And the subterranean pressure that causes the magma to erupt does not follow a schedule.
What's more, previous super-eruptions do not necessarily imply future ones. Scientists are not convinced that there ever will be another big eruption at Yellowstone. Smaller eruptions, however, are much likelier. Since the Lava Creek eruption, there have been about 30 smaller outbreaks at Yellowstone, the last lava flow being about 70,000 years ago.
As for the immediate future (give or take a century): the magma chamber beneath Yellowstone is only 5 percent to 15 percent molten. Most scientists agree that is as un-alarming as it sounds. And that its statistically more relevant to worry about death by lightning, shark, or piano.
Strange Maps #1041
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How imagining the worst case scenario can help calm anxiety.
- Stoicism is the philosophy that nothing about the world is good or bad in itself, and that we have control over both our judgments and our reactions to things.
- It is hardest to control our reactions to the things that come unexpectedly.
- By meditating every day on the "worst case scenario," we can take the sting out of the worst that life can throw our way.
Are you a worrier? Do you imagine nightmare scenarios and then get worked up and anxious about them? Does your mind get caught in a horrible spiral of catastrophizing over even the smallest of things? Worrying, particularly imagining the worst case scenario, seems to be a natural part of being human and comes easily to a lot of us. It's awful, perhaps even dangerous, when we do it.
But, there might just be an ancient wisdom that can help. It involves reframing this attitude for the better, and it comes from Stoicism. It's called "premeditation," and it could be the most useful trick we can learn.
Broadly speaking, Stoicism is the philosophy of choosing your judgments. Stoics believe that there is nothing about the universe that can be called good or bad, valuable or valueless, in itself. It's we who add these values to things. As Shakespeare's Hamlet says, "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so." Our minds color the things we encounter as being "good" or "bad," and given that we control our minds, we therefore have control over all of our negative feelings.
Put another way, Stoicism maintains that there's a gap between our experience of an event and our judgment of it. For instance, if someone calls you a smelly goat, you have an opportunity, however small and hard it might be, to pause and ask yourself, "How will I judge this?" What's more, you can even ask, "How will I respond?" We have power over which thoughts we entertain and the final say on our actions. Today, Stoicism has influenced and finds modern expression in the hugely effective "cognitive behavioral therapy."
Helping you practice StoicismCredit: Robyn Beck via Getty Images
One of the principal fathers of ancient Stoicism was the Roman statesmen, Seneca, who argued that the unexpected and unforeseen blows of life are the hardest to take control over. The shock of a misfortune can strip away the power we have to choose our reaction. For instance, being burglarized feels so horrible because we had felt so safe at home. A stomach ache, out of the blue, is harder than a stitch thirty minutes into a run. A sudden bang makes us jump, but a firework makes us smile. Fell swoops hurt more than known hardships.
What could possibly go wrong?
So, how can we resolve this? Seneca suggests a Stoic technique called "premeditatio malorum" or "premeditation." At the start of every day, we ought to take time to indulge our anxious and catastrophizing mind. We should "rehearse in the mind: exile, torture, war, shipwreck." We should meditate on the worst things that could happen: your partner will leave you, your boss will fire you, your house will burn down. Maybe, even, you'll die.
This might sound depressing, but the important thing is that we do not stop there.
Stoicism has influenced and finds modern expression in the hugely effective "cognitive behavioral therapy."
The Stoic also rehearses how they will react to these things as they come up. For instance, another Stoic (and Roman Emperor) Marcus Aurelius asks us to imagine all the mean, rude, selfish, and boorish people we'll come across today. Then, in our heads, we script how we'll respond when we meet them. We can shrug off their meanness, smile at their rudeness, and refuse to be "implicated in what is degrading." Thus prepared, we take control again of our reactions and behavior.
The Stoics cast themselves into the darkest and most desperate of conditions but then realize that they can and will endure. With premeditation, the Stoic is prepared and has the mental vigor necessary to take the blow on the chin and say, "Yep, l can deal with this."
Catastrophizing as a method of mental inoculation
Seneca wrote: "In times of peace, the soldier carries out maneuvers." This is also true of premeditation, which acts as the war room or training ground. The agonizing cut of the unexpected is blunted by preparedness. We can prepare the mind for whatever trials may come, in just the same way we can prepare the body for some endurance activity. The world can throw nothing as bad as that which our minds have already imagined.
Stoicism teaches us to embrace our worrying mind but to embrace it as a kind of inoculation. With a frown over breakfast, try to spend five minutes of your day deliberately catastrophizing. Get your anti-anxiety battle plan ready and then face the world.
A study on charity finds that reminding people how nice it feels to give yields better results than appealing to altruism.
- A study finds asking for donations by appealing to the donor's self-interest may result in more money than appealing to their better nature.
- Those who received an appeal to self-interest were both more likely to give and gave more than those in the control group.
- The effect was most pronounced for those who hadn't given before.
Even the best charities with the longest records of doing great fundraising work have to spend some time making sure that the next donation checks will keep coming in. One way to do this is by showing potential donors all the good things the charity did over the previous year. But there may be a better way.
A new study by researchers in the United States and Australia suggests that appealing to the benefits people will receive themselves after a donation nudges them to donate more money than appealing to the greater good.
How to get people to give away free money
The postcards that were sent to different study subjects. The one on the left highlighted benefits to the self, while the one on the right highlighted benefits to others.List et al. / Nature Human Behaviour
The study, published in Nature Human Behaviour, utilized the Pick.Click.Give program in Alaska. This program allows Alaska residents who qualify for dividends from the Alaska Permanent Fund, a yearly payment ranging from $800 to $2000 in recent years, to donate a portion of it to various in-state non-profit organizations.
The researchers randomly assigned households to either a control group or to receive a postcard in the mail encouraging them to donate a portion of their dividend to charity. That postcard could come in one of two forms, either highlighting the benefits to others or the benefits to themselves.
Those who got the postcard touting self-benefits were 6.6 percent more likely to give than those in the control group and gave 23 percent more on average. Those getting the benefits-to-others postcard were slightly more likely to give than those receiving no postcard, but their donations were no larger.
Additionally, the researchers were able to break the subject list down into a "warm list" of those who had given at least once before in the last two years and a "cold list" of those who had not. Those on the warm list, who were already giving, saw only minor increases in their likelihood to donate after getting a postcard in the mail compared to those on the cold list.
Additionally, the researchers found that warm-list subjects who received the self-interest postcard gave 11 percent more than warm-list subjects in the control group. Amazingly, among cold-list subjects, those who received a self-interest postcard gave 39 percent more.
These are substantial improvements. At the end of the study, the authors point out, "If we had sent the benefits to self message to all households in the state, aggregate contributions would have increased by nearly US$600,000."
To put this into perspective, in 2017 the total donations to the program were roughly $2,700,000.
Is altruism dead?
Are all actions inherently self-interested? Thankfully, no. The study focuses entirely on effective ways to increase charitable donations above levels that currently exist. It doesn't deny that some people are giving out of pure altruism, but rather that an appeal based on self-interest is effective. Plenty of people were giving before this study took place who didn't need a postcard as encouragement. It is also possible that some people donated part of their dividend check to a charity that does not work with Pick.Click.Give and were uncounted here.
It is also important to note that Pick.Click.Give does not provide services but instead gives money to a wide variety of organizations that do. Those organizations operate in fields from animal rescue to job training to public broadcasting. The authors note that it is possible that a more specific appeal to the benefits others will receive from a donation might prove more effective than the generic and all-inclusive "Make Alaska Better For Everyone" appeal that they used.
In an ideal world, charity is its own reward. In ours, it might help to remind somebody how warm and fuzzy they'll feel after donating to your cause.
The 'Monkeydactyl' was a flying reptile that evolved highly specialized adaptations in the Mesozoic Era.