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  • Author or Editor: Michelle Jayman x
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‘The health and wellbeing of today’s children depend on us having the courage and imagination to rise to the challenge of doing things differently’ (Marmot, 2010, p 29)

Children and young people’s mental wellbeing is one of the most critical health issues the world is facing today. Enjoying a mentally healthy life is inextricably linked to the environment in which we grow and develop. In the early decades of the 21st century, digital technologies are often tightly interwoven into everyday life from infancy, spawning a unique generation of new digital natives (NDNs). The digital realm is vastly networked and many children are exposed to a world far beyond their immediate family, school and friendship groups.1 The ubiquity of digital technologies and their mediating role across crucial aspects of children’s lives has generated keen interest in the implications for their mental and physical wellbeing. Studies which suggest a raft of nefarious effects on children’s wellbeing have been criticised for methodological flaws (Orben and Przybylski, 2019), yet such research has influenced key policy decisions including restrictive measures which attempt to limit children’s access to technologies. Nonetheless, powerful evidence, including research by Twenge et al (2019) linking mood disorders and suicide-related outcomes among younger generations with digital technology use, supports adopting a cautionary approach. Certainly, research in this area is still emerging and the relative benefits vis-à-vis the potential risks and harm to children continue to be fiercely debated.

In 2020, a deadly virus arrived in the midst of our everyday lives, spreading indiscriminately across the globe.

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Children in the early decades of the 21st century are growing up in a social world remarkably different from that of their parents or grandparents.1 While every generation is transitory by nature, a uniquely striking feature for children living in contemporary society is the proliferation of digital technologies and the unprecedented pace and scale of change such technologies bring. The opportunities and benefits afforded those born into a digitally rich environment are immense and can have a positive impact on many important areas of children’s lives including education and learning, play and creativity, and relationships and social connectivity. However, casting a shadow over this vision of techno-utopia is a cloud of associated risks and potential harms which appear in guises unique to a digital environment, for example cyberbullying, online sexual exploitation and access to distressing content. While not all children are exposed to digital technologies equally, the modern world is constantly changing in complex ways, and digital technologies are an integral part of this shifting landscape. An increasingly interconnected digital world requires children to learn the skills and be given the support to navigate the complexities of a hi-tech environment and to feel safe and happy to live, learn and play within it. This book is concerned with how children can live mentally healthy lives, meeting the challenges inherent in a society increasingly dominated by digital technologies, while also harnessing the abundance of great opportunities this has to offer.

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Play in its variety of forms is intrinsically fun, rousing positive emotions which affect children’s wellbeing and mental health. In fact, play is considered such an essential component of children’s healthy development that it is recognised by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) as a right of every child (UN, 1989). Play has been broadly defined as any activity that displays features of non-literality, positive affect, flexibility and intrinsic motivation (Krasnor and Pepler, 1980). Simply put, it is enjoyable, voluntary and done for its own sake. The enormous physical, cognitive, social and psychological benefits of play for children from infancy to adolescence are well documented. A body of evidence indicates that incorporating a playful learning approach in the classroom is a highly effective pedagogical strategy for improving academic outcomes and increasing motivation (Weisberg et al, 2013). Moreover, pedagogies based on guided play (essentially child directed but incorporating adult-scaffolded learning objectives) have been shown to have a positive impact on socio-emotional development and emotional regulation (Ogan and Berk, 2009). Book of Beasties (BoB) – an award-winning school-based intervention which aims to develop children’s emotional literacy and support wellbeing – utilises a guided-learning approach through the medium of a traditional card game.1 Before this chapter explores BoB further, the concept of play and emerging modes of play for new digital natives (NDNs) will be briefly considered.

A radical shift in the nature of play has been linked with the exponential growth of digital technologies. Children growing up in digitally wealthy societies are exposed to technologies from an increasingly young age.

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Red Balloon Learner Centres and online programmes such as Lift Off are dedicated to supporting vulnerable children who become long-term absent from school because of bullying or other trauma, assisting their recovery and bridging their return to mainstream education or other progression pathway. Providing children with educational, wellbeing and social re-engagement programmes as an alternative to school, the charity Red Balloon offers academic lessons, counselling services, therapeutic activities and a supportive community.

The number of pupils in England excluded from both primary and secondary schools has significantly increased since 2010 (Marmot et al, 2020).1 Permanent exclusions reached their highest point in nearly a decade, with just under 8,000 pupils being expelled in the academic year 2017–18. This equates to around 42 children (aged 5 to 15) per day (Partridge et al, 2020). These grim figures deservedly attract much attention and make headline news; however, less interest is given to the unknown yet significant number of children who self-exclude from mainstream education. There are multiple, often complex, reasons why children ‘refuse’ to attend school. According to Thambirajah et al (2008: 33): ‘School refusal occurs when stress exceeds support, when risks are greater than resilience and when “pull” factors that promote school non-attendance overcome the “push” factors that encourage attendance.’ Research suggests that children self-exclude due to mental health difficulties or after experiencing trauma, and there is a strong link between bullying and absenteeism (Brown et al, 2011). According to Carrie Herbert, founder and chief executive of Red Balloon, these children are liable to fall below the radar and become lost to society (Guardian, 2010).

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The nature of childhood and adolescence is characteristically social, complex and in constant flux. This is further intensified for new digital natives (NDNs) by the ubiquity of digital technologies which shape their unique, rapidly changing experiences. While there are myriad possibilities for digital technologies to be utilised in supporting the mental and physical wellbeing of children, it would be over-simplistic to consider such technologies in an exclusively instrumental light. Harnessing these opportunities requires some understanding of how digital technologies work and the ways in which children perceive and use them. Sakr (2020) adopts the term ‘affordances’ to describe the physical properties and social associations of any tool children use to learn and play, digital or otherwise.1 In this sense, affordances refer not only to an object’s physical potential but also to the social and cultural messages which define appropriate forms of engagement. As Sakr (2020) and others (for example Ruckenstein, 2013) suggest, a socio-cultural perspective can help our understanding of how digital activities are mediated by social, cultural and material contexts.

Human agency involves volition and intentionally making things happen by one’s actions – for Bandura (2001) this involves evaluating socio-cultural opportunities and constraints and regulating behaviour accordingly. Human agency inevitably influences the interface between digital technologies and learning outcomes; however, within formal education settings, structures and rules dictate what adults and children can actually do. Hierarchical teacher–pupil power relations still commonly prevail in classrooms in the United Kingdom, and varying constraints exist in terms of how digital technologies are taken up within local educational contexts.

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Children’s Mental Health and Wellbeing in a Hi-Tech Age

How can we support children’s and young people’s mental wellbeing in a digital age?

Through a series of informative and thought-provoking case studies, this book explores how to enable children and young people to stay safe, happy and mentally healthy at a time when so much of their lives are spent online. Featuring contributions from across research and practice, with the voice of the child at its heart, the book offers simple, practical guidance for improving wellbeing based on real-world evidence. It will be essential reading for parents, carers and professionals working with children across a range of school and community settings.

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