Mental and digital wellbeing: a balanced, blended approach

Children spent much of the past year of lockdowns online, felt that living life online was a poor substitute for offline activities, and reported lower wellbeing during lockdown than previously. That was the headline finding from this week’s Children’s Media Lives report from Ofcom, which delved into the online world inhabited by eight to 18-year-olds, from TikTok to anime. 

Given the amount of time spent on screens during lockdown and impact of the pandemic on the mental health of young people – over half of girls aged 15-18 feel lockdown has had a negative impact on their mental health  – it’s not surprising that there is currently a focus on both wellbeing and recovery and on screen-free outdoors time. 

The power of nature

As restrictions are gradually eased and colder weather passes, it makes sense for schools  to seize the opportunity to make the most of outside play and breaks, physical exercise, activity within school grounds and the environment and local area and, where feasible and safe, field work, outdoor learning and planned trips. One school in Lancashire has even instituted Wellbeing Welly Week, where pupils from the year 5 and 6 class spend a week in non-uniform and wellies doing mainly outdoor activities such as gardening, treasure hunts and building campfires. Interest in next month’s Outdoor Classroom Day, a global movement to make time outdoors part of every child’s day, is growing steadily and the theme for Mental Health Awareness Week on 10-16 May is ‘nature’. 

Blending nature and digital

However, it would be a mistake to assume that outdoors and ‘screen-free’ has to mean, or is better if it means, ‘technology-free’. An activity can be outdoors and active and still be enhanced by digital technology, from cameras to microscopes. Capturing, celebrating, sharing and remembering the highs and enjoyment of these activities is one way that digital can be deployed, with digital photos and videos. There are also opportunities to use technology in outdoors lessons that tie in with the curriculum – measuring pulse rates, taking light and temperature readings, alongside recording sound, photos and video. As well as enhancing science activities these can also all be a great stimulus for creative work in arts and humanities and in creative writing. It’s something we explore in our work with younger children at the Garden Museum, where the children really investigate the space using a variety of technologies, from magnifying glasses and binoculars to digital microscopes and VR headsets (read more in our blog post).

Similarly, wellbeing and digital are not mutually exclusive. There is a wealth of wellbeing resources online, from mindfulness courses to Wellbeing Connected, designed specifically for primary schools by London Grid for Learning. The Ollee app is a digital friend for children aged 8-11, created by Parent Zone and designed to help children reflect on how they feel and to process their experiences with the support and help of their parents and carers. It does this by offering them advice about a range of subjects: school, family, friends, their body, the internet and the world. Lots of schools now have dedicated wellbeing Twitter accounts take a look, for example at WoodyWellbeing from Woodmansterne, one of our partner schools. For more inspiration, the hashtag #wellbeing on Twitter is full of uplifting examples from schools and beyond.

While the risk of online harms is real, so is a blanket assumption that the digital environment must be removed for wellbeing to flourish. As Sonia Livingstone describes

“The more that I collaborate with mental health experts, the more I see that, while mental health is new for those long concerned with the digital, the nature of the digital is still rather new for those long experienced in the mental health difficulties of young people. There appears a confusion of terms – notably, a tendency to talk about “social media” as a catch-all term (though it excludes a lot), little recognition of the plethora of digital products and services used by young people, and more focus on devices and screens than on the design, affordances or business practices that underpin them (and which the Online Safety Bill will seek to regulate).”

Wellbeing blended

And as schools plan for different future eventualities, including further waves of virus or longer lasting restrictions, it also makes sense to consider wellbeing in the blended mix that can be seen in a positive light into the next academic year and beyond. Schools by and large tackled the switch to remote learning better the second time around, and there’s cause for optimism that a third time, if it has to happen, could take into account all the lessons learned over the last year, to achieve a balance between all the necessary constraints and demands – and there is a need for ongoing consideration of the digital divide, and how it continues to persist, and what this means for education.

In future blog or two this term we’ll be returning to some strategic considerations and encouraging schools to plan now for increased accessibility and inclusion in what they can provide digitally, alongside maintaining a breadth of curriculum and balance between active and passive learning – onscreen/offscreen time – and build in all the optimal elements for effective remote and blended delivery, one of the factors that is likely to provide significant increase in wellbeing for both teachers, students and families and we chart a course through the second year of the pandemic.

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