The Guardian, 04.10.15, survey of headteachers finds problems including eating disorders are now at unprecedented levels, with social media and exam stress blamed. Former HMC Chairman Bernard Trafford, headmaster of The Royal Grammar School, Newcastle is quoted.
Teenage pupils are experiencing unprecedented levels of depression, eating disorders and self-harm, according to headteachers, who say longstanding stresses have been amplified by increased pressure over exams and the ever-present anxieties of social media.
The warning comes from the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC), representing 275 leading private schools, which surveyed 65 headteachers on the subject.
The responses found that in some ways, schools appear to have become kinder places, with fewer cases of intolerance such as homophobic bullying, as well as less drug and alcohol misuse. However, they found greatly increased cyberbullying and online threats, and what the HMC called unprecedented levels of self-harm, depression and eating disorders among pupils.
Bernard Trafford, the headmaster of the Royal Grammar school in Newcastle upon Tyne and a former chair of HMC, told the Guardian that exam pressures played some role, with pupils facing higher grade requirements to get into top universities.
But a greater factor, he said, appeared to be the way social media made common teenage anxieties harder to escape, also exaggerating worries over such things as body image.
“It is the pressure to excel, and also to be beautiful, all that stuff. And friendship issues seem to be more difficult than ever. In the old days, you got home from school, or in the boarding sector got back to your boarding house, and you got away from it to some extent.
“But of course the digital messaging follows people home, even into the bedroom, and they’re never away from it. For young people, who aren’t good at having the strength of mind to just turn the damn thing off, the 24/7 nature does help to amplify the pressures, even if they’re much the same pressures they used to be.”
The HMC report found the proportion of schools reporting the misuse of social media or cyberbullying had more than doubled over five years, with 94% now seeing social media misuse as an issue, and 65% believing it is a serious worry.
There was also a significant increase in concerns about self-harm, with 88% of schools reporting this and 45% saying it was a significant issue. With depression, 87% of schools said this was a concern, against 47% saying so five years before.
Asked about eating disorders, 85% of the headteachers said these were a worry, up from 65% five years ago.
Some other elements of school life were seen to have improved, with about half of headteachers reporting that pupils were generally kinder to each other and less likely to bully, and 82% saying they seemed more tolerant of difference.
Worries about issues such as exam stress, cyberbullying and the overuse of social media have become increasingly common in state and private schools, with a study last month warning that teenagers who use digital devices at night could be more at risk of depression and anxiety. In May, the NSPCC said the number of young people seeking counselling over exam stress had increased by 200% in recent years.
The HMC survey found schools are bringing in more professional help for pupils, with 45% having increased the provision of in-house counselling over five years, 25% doing so significantly. Almost all now run sessions for parents about non-academic concerns.
Trafford said pupils and parents at his school seemed more ready to talk about such issues and get over the stigma of discussing them.
Parents have a role in helping teenagers to switch off from social media pressures, he said: “We say to parents, don’t let them take the technology to the bedroom. It’s much safer left on the hall table to charge, or whatever. It saves all sorts of problems. Sometimes parents say they find their children still on devices at 2am.”
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