I’ve had a newspaper article on my desk for quite some time now. It’s about seven students, from the same university, all of whom took their own lives within the space of 18 months.
It absolutely breaks my heart.
The University’s vice-chancellor said these tragic deaths were symptomatic of rising anxiety and depression among young people, partly caused by the pressure to appear ‘perfect’ all the time online.
I have children of a similar age myself, so this is close to home. To my mind, the problem is a hugely complex one, but I wonder if part of it relates to how we deal with our feelings and emotions, as well as how we connect with others online and offline.
“I think many of us struggle to connect”
When I showed the news story to my 16-year-old son, he grew frustrated. “Older people tend to blame social media a lot for depression and suicide, but it’s not the only cause,” he said. “People can have issues with communication and social interaction that are not digital at all.”
He makes a good point.
I think many of us struggle to connect with each other face-to-face these days; you see it everywhere you go. How many times have you been to a restaurant, and noticed a family seated around a table with every single person on their phones, playing games or scrolling? You could blame technology and social media for this. But the truth is, we are the ones holding the devices.
We need to make a conscious effort to put them down, and instead take the time to connect with one another personally; to make each other feel loved, and our company feel valued.
“Our children need strategies for the online world”
Then again, the online world can definitely be an unhealthy place. Many online platforms deliver a constant feed of seemingly perfect people leading seemingly flawless lives. If we take this at face value, it can feed our insecurities, leading us to believe that our lives are not good enough – but that we must keep up appearances, and pretend everything is fine.
However, I also think that for many of us, social media can make our lives look prettier than they actually are, quite by accident.
For example, we might not feel comfortable broadcasting to everyone that we went to the doctor. But we’re happy to share that we went out for a meal. As a result, we end up with an edited existence; an online life that doesn’t mirror the rough and the smooth of our life offline.
Whether on purpose or not, then, the overall tendency is for social media to only show the good stuff – when of course, real life will never be picture-perfect. Life is gritty and desperate and hard and fun and heart-warming and beautiful, all rolled into one.
As parents, we teach our children to communicate from the moment they can focus their eyes. So as our children continue to grow in this new digital age, I really think we need to broaden our teaching to include strategies for connecting and communicating, both online and offline.
“I think a lot of important work can be done at school”
I think a lot of important work can be done when children really start socialising properly, which is when they’re at school.
If a child at the age of 5 knows when they’re feeling happy, and can understand what makes them angry or scared, they’ll have excellent foundations to socialise well with others online and offline, and to cope with what life throws at them as they grow.
It’s one of the things I am most passionate about, and it’s what I do through my mindfulness programme for schools. Working with all primary school children, from year R through to year 6, I teach simple, powerful and age-appropriate strategies to help them identify, talk about and reflect on their feelings. I also teach the importance of kindness, gratitude and compassion, explain how the brain works and the mind-body connection, and demonstrate breathing techniques to tackle stress and anxiety. Plus I work with teachers and headteachers, so that they can reinforce this learning every day in the classroom.
It’s my genuine hope that by giving children useable techniques for self-care, and teaching them from an early age that it is ok not to feel ok – and that it’s ok to share these feelings with people – they will be less likely to experience more extreme mental health issues later on in life.
“I have a challenge for you”
So as you finish reading this blog (thank you) and you head off to the rest of your day, I have a challenge for you. If you’re feeling brave, what could you share on social media that isn’t picture-perfect? And – perhaps better still – could you stop scrolling, and start reconnecting with the people right there in the room with you? These small changes really could make a big difference.
I have a comprehensive Mindfulness In Education programme that I can tailor to the needs of any primary school and any age group, from Year R through to Year 6. Find out more.