In the Age of Social Media, Our Kids Need All the Mental Health Support They Can Get

Oct 8, 2019 12:00:00 AM

by Zachary Wright 

As a parent in his mid-thirties, I know that my childhood is totally unlike the childhood of my children. Sure, that’s a truism. But perhaps it is also truer now than at any other time in history.

Think about it.

If I had a bad day at school, was bullied, teased or hurt, when I went home, the school day was over. I was home and I was safe.

But for today’s kids, this simply isn’t true.

The school day, along with its social networks, never ends.

Facebook. Instagram. Snapchat. Twitter.

[pullquote]Our kids take their social worlds home with them in their pockets.[pullquote]

While I, like the rest of us adults today, could tune out the voices when we got home, our children are not afforded that opportunity. The incessant buzz and ping from their phones trigger a near-Pavlovian response—the notifications must be seen, the posts scanned, the stories shared.

Some of us may argue that the kids could just put their phones away.

But as an educator of almost fifteen years, I can attest that such statements only highlight the ever-growing chasm between the realities of our young people and the realities of our own childhoods. 

Not only that, but before we tell our young people to simply put their phones away, I would challenge us to think about our own habits—how long do we go before we check our phones? When was the last time we took a single day off from looking at our phones?

The bottom line is that the vast majority of us elders who came of age in the era of landlines do not possess the skills, experience and natural know-how to support our children, the world’s first-ever digital natives.

And it shows.

Our children are calling out for help, if only we have the ears to listen.

This Isn’t About Someone Else’s Children

Please let me be clear.

This isn’t about those kids who need help. This isn’t about those families who need support.

[pullquote position="right"]This is about all of our children. This is about all of our families.[/pullquote]

This is about me and mine, you and yours.

According to the National Association of School Psychologists, “one in five children and adolescents experience a mental health problem during their school years. Examples include stress, anxiety, bullying, family problems, depression, a learning disability, and alcohol and substance abuse. Serious mental health problems, such as self-injurious behaviors and suicide, are on the rise, particularly among youth. Unfortunately, estimates of up to 60% of students do not receive the treatment they need due to stigma and lack of access to services. Of those who do get help, nearly two-thirds do so only in school.”

While learning disabilities are not the same as mental health needs, they do overlap in that schools can and often do sit at the center of these worlds. 

I can speak to this from personal experience.

Had it not been for an expert in my oldest son’s school, we simply would not have known that he had needs that required significant supports.  When our pediatrician and all of our family members told us not to worry, this expert raised the alarm that informed and empowered us as parents to advocate for our child and access the supports he not only needed but was legally entitled to.

School experts in mental health can do just this as well.

We Need People, Practices and Professional Learning to Support Our Kids

Here are a few initiatives that can help.

All schools need a counseling coordinator: an expert in the field of student support and mental health who will be that one source for answers, strategies and resources for parents, families and teachers alike. Without such a steward, families, students and teachers find themselves lost in a sea of turmoil.

All students must benefit from research-based best practices that equip young people with the social-emotional learning to empower them with the decision-making skills, interpersonal skills and self-esteem to meet the rigors of being a young person in today’s world.

In addition, educators need rigorous and robust professional learning opportunities to not only educate them on the theoretical needs of 21st century students, but also the practical methods with which to support their students and our children.

And finally, for those students and families in greatest need, counseling opportunities will be housed on school premises by outside providers, thus minimizing the difficulties and hurdles that too often prevent families from accessing the support they need.

We cannot tell the future.

We cannot tell the needs our children may have— perhaps not now, but somewhere down the line.

This isn’t about helping those kids, or supporting those families. 

It’s about ensuring that all students, ours and others, have the supports they need to thrive in the 21st century.

Zachary Wright 

Zachary Wright is an assistant professor of practice at Relay Graduate School of Education, serving Philadelphia and Camden, and a communications activist at Education Post. Prior, he was the twelfth-grade world literature and Advanced Placement literature teacher at Mastery Charter School's Shoemaker Campus, where he taught students for eight years—including the school's first eight graduating classes. Wright was a national finalist for the 2018 U.S. Department of Education's School Ambassador Fellowship, and he was named Philadelphia's Outstanding Teacher of the Year in 2013. During his more than 10 years in Philadelphia classrooms, Wright created a relationship between Philadelphia's Mastery Schools and the University of Vermont that led to the granting of near-full-ride college scholarships for underrepresented students. And he participated in the fight for equitable education funding by testifying before Philadelphia's Board of Education and in the Pennsylvania State Capitol rotunda. Wright has been recruited by Facebook and Edutopia to speak on digital education. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, he organized demonstrations to close the digital divide. His writing has been published by The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Philadelphia Citizen, Chalkbeat, Education Leadership, and numerous education blogs. Wright lives in Collingswood, New Jersey, with his wife and two sons. Read more about Wright's work and pick up a copy of his new book, " Dismantling A Broken System; Actions to Close the Equity, Justice, and Opportunity Gaps in American Education"—now available for pre-order!

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