April is National Stress Awareness Month, and the modern world presents school-aged people with more stress than ever. What better time to look at the specific pressures affecting them, and at what can be done to relieve it?
Social media causing stress in young teens
Earlier this year a report was published saying that young people going into secondary school are ill-equipped to deal with the onslaught of social media taking increasingly important role in their lives, exposing them to significant emotional risk.
While eight-to-10-year-olds tend to use social media in a creative way, often playing games with one another, the report said this changes when they enter secondary school with the use of platforms such as Instagram and Snapchat, where children begin to chase “likes” and positive comments on their posts.
The “Life in Likes” report showed that many children in year 7 – the first year of secondary school – feel under pressure to be constantly connected and on social media, often neglecting other activities in order to keep up the online activity.
These young people worry about their online image, particularly when following celebrities on Instagram and other platforms. Apparently they are also concerned about “sharenting” – when parents post pictures of them on social media without asking permission – and worry that their parents won’t listen if they ask for pictures to be taken down.
The Children’s Commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, called on parents and teachers to do more to prepare children for the emotional impact of social media as they get older. She said the introduction of compulsory digital literacy and online resilience lessons for pupils in year 6 and 7 could help remedy some of the issues.
“While social media clearly provides some great benefits to children, it is also exposing them to significant risks emotionally, particularly as they approach year 7,” Longfield said when the report was published.
“I am worried that many children are starting secondary school ill-equipped to cope with the sudden demands of social media as their world expands. It is also clear that social media companies are still not doing enough to stop under-13s using their platforms in the first place.”
The secondary school social media “cliff edge”
Despite most social media sites having an official age limit of 13, an estimated 75% of 10-to-12 year olds will have a social media account. Those approaching their teens and moving to secondary school face “a cliff edge” – according to the report – as social media becomes more complex, with the focus on social interactions and image.
Some children are almost addicted to “likes”, the report said. One 11-year-old told researchers: “If I got 150 likes, I’d be like, that’s pretty cool, it means they like you.”
Another 11-year-old said: “You might compare yourself because you’re not very pretty compared to them.”
Huge spike in exam-related stress
Last year, another report demonstrated a different source of stress on school-aged people: exams.
Children’s charity the NSPCC reported a surge in the number of young people seeking help through the Childline support service specifically due to worry about their exam results.
In May 2017, Childline delivered 3,135 counselling sessions on exam stress in 2016/17 – a rise of 11% over the previous two years.
One in five of these took place in May as pupils faced upcoming exams, with many telling counsellors that they were struggling with subjects, excessive workloads and feeling unprepared.
12-15-year-olds were the most likely age-group to be counselled about exam stress, but 2017 saw the biggest rise – up by 21% since 2015/16 – among 16-18-year-olds, many of whom will have been preparing for A-levels to determine university places.
“I’m terrified that I’ve messed it all up & I’ll ruin my future”
Speaking to the NSPCC ahead of results day, one secondary school pupil said: “I’m stressed about my GCSE results. There’s so much pressure at school to get good grades. Even though I work really hard I don’t think my grades always show that.
“I try and stay calm but on the inside I’m panicking, what if I don’t get good enough marks to do the job I want in the future?“
Another said: “I’m worried about getting my GCSE results. I’m terrified that I’ve messed it all up and I’ll ruin my future. I don’t know how to cope.”
The unhappiest teens in the world?
Yet another report published last year demonstrated how much pressure and stress the UK’s school-aged young people are under. They were found to be among the world's unhappiest teens.
The research from Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) also found that UK teenagers are more anxious about testing than their counterparts in almost any other country – including South Korea and China – and have high internet usage associated with poor test scores.
The UK was ranked 38th out of 48 countries based on how satisfied 15-year-olds are with their lives in a report.
With a score of 6.98 out of 10, UK pupils rated themselves less happy than their peers in Lithuania (7.86), Russia (7.76) and Uruguay (7.70).
UK students also reported some of the highest levels of exam-related stress across the globe.
More than seven in 10 (71.9%) of UK pupils said they feel “very anxious” about tests, even when they are well prepared.
“PISA results show that teachers’ practices, behaviour and communication in the classroom are associated with students’ levels of anxiety,” the report said.
“After accounting for students’ performance and socio-economic status, students who reported that their science teachers adapt the lesson to the class’s needs and knowledge were less likely to report feeling anxious even if they are well prepared for a test, or to report that they get very tense when they study.”
The exam stress gender imbalance
There is also a gender imbalance when it comes to exam-related stress. In all countries that participated in the study, girls reported greater anxiety about schoolwork than boys.
Only 47% of male teenagers said they felt “very” worried about exams they had revised for, compared to 64% of their female peers.
PISA surveyed 540,000 students from 72 countries and economies to gather the results of its report.
The good news is that there’s plenty of advice out there for school leavers wanting to alleviate stress.
Exam stress advice for school leavers
Young people can manage exam stress via a number of methods:
• Learn to recognise when you're stressing out. A break or a chat with someone who knows the pressure you're under will get things into perspective.
• Avoid comparing your abilities with your friends. Those " I've only read Hamlet 23 times" conversations are not helpful, they just add to stress. Everyone approaches revision in different ways, so just make sure you've chosen a method that works best for you. Make a realistic timetable and stick to it.
• Make sure you eat well. Treat your body like a well-oiled machine by eating fresh fruit and veg, and always having a proper breakfast. Fuel your brain as well as your body - no one can think properly on coffee, fizzy drinks, sweets and chocolate.
• Sleep well. Wind down before bed and don't revise under the duvet - your bed is a sanctuary, not a desk. Get your eight hours a night.
• Exercise. Nothing de-stresses the mind faster than physical activity, so build it into your timetable. Being a sloth makes our mind sloppy too.
• Panic is often triggered by hyperventilating (quick, shallow breaths), so if you feel yourself losing it during the exam, sit back for a moment and control your breathing. Deep breathe in and out through the nose, counting to five each way.
• Steer clear of any exam 'post-mortems'. It doesn't matter what anyone else wrote for Question 3(b): it's too late to go back and change your answers, so it will just make you worry even more.
Essentially, don't lose sight of the fact that there is life after exams. Things might seem intense right now, but it won't last forever.
Social media stress advice for school leavers
There is also plenty you can do when it comes to alleviating social media-related anxiety too, if that is something that might be becoming a problem for you.
Emerson Csorba has spent the better part of three years investigating why young people are suffering from a happiness deficit. In an essay for the Harvard Business Review, he said he believes there’s a “unique challenge” facing this burgeoning demographic: “ruthless” comparison between themselves and others online.
Csorba & Company Ltd, along with registered psychologist Eliana Cohen, say there are three ways young people are, essentially, torturing themselves by looking at social media: the pressure to manipulate their lives to look “perfect”; the belief that other people are “perfect” and making a success of their lives; and the fact that there is so much choice in terms of what to do career-wise that they find it impossible to make any decisions.
Below are five tips that can offset these social media-related stresses and pressures.
1. Find solitude
Csorba believes it’s important to find meaning and comfort in being alone. “There’s a difference between being lonely, and just being alone,” he says. Going for a walk, meditating, and completely shutting off can bring you peace and calm, free from distractions. It can bring you back to the moment, as opposed to constantly thinking about the future and worrying, “Who am I going to be”?
“You can look at all the good things you’ve done [and] its progress without getting caught up in the outcome,” says Cohen.
2. Reflect on what it is that connects you to your passions
These are the things you admire and care about most. Rather than pondering what has been successful for others, focus on your hobbies and skills. “Through this internal source of guidance, people give direction to their lives and derive satisfaction from what they do,” writes Albert Bandura, professor from emeritus at Stanford University, in The Psyhchology of Chance Encounters and Life Paths.
3. Think about long-term goals
In an incredibly fast-paced world, it’s important to slow down and think about some longer-term life projects. As most successful people know, success isn’t built overnight and focusing on a particular area can give you a sense of security. “It shows [them] that that it’s OK to think long-term and to not feel like they are not getting what they want in the short term,” says Csorba.
4. Compare yourself to you and no one else
You will always make comparisons, so try to “do you” as opposed to studying others. “A very good question to ask yourself is, “What do I have now that I didn’t have five years ago? What do I have now that I didn’t have one year ago?” says Cohen. This will make you feel great about how far you’ve come.
“There is always someone thinner, there is always someone richer, and there is always someone with a better car, and a better husband,” she adds. This might be aimed at slightly older people, in the Millenial bracket, but the approach is applicable to anyone using social media.
5. Face-to-face interaction
Communicate with your friends in person or on the phone. One study suggests that “the prescription for Facebook despair is less Facebook.”
Old-fashioned, direct methods of communication might take more time and determination, but they are known to make people feel better.
It may take a bit of effort, but following these steps to ensure your mental health is at its best – and alleviating the stress that goes along with being a school-aged person in the UK today – will be for the best in the end. And that will be at least one less thing to worry about as you continue on your career journey.