Titles on our Children, Young People and Families list range from bestselling textbooks, including the Open University Childhood series, critical monographs such as those in the international Sociology of Children and Families series and the Families, Relationships and Societies journal.
Long-established, this interdisciplinary list brings together work across Childhood Studies, Sociology, Social Policy and Criminology. It supports students in their successful study, challenges current policy and practice and offers practical guidance to those working with children and young people in often difficult circumstances.
Children, Young People and Families
For some time there has been concern about the effects of children’s disconnection from nature. In his book, Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv coined the term ‘nature deficit disorder’, suggesting that the increasing use of digital technology and parental fear have contributed to ‘endemic obesity, attention deficit disorder, isolation and childhood depression’ (Louv, 2005: np). The growth of Forest School in recent years has, in part, been driven by a desire to reconnect children with nature (Leather, 2018) and to provide an alternative to the digital world experienced by today’s children and young people (CYP).
Forest School was developed in the UK in the 1990s by early years practitioners at Bridgwater College, Somerset, who had visited Danish preschools and taken inspiration from Scandinavian models of friluftsliv (roughly translated as ‘open air living’). It further draws on a rich history of outdoor learning in the UK, from the Romantics (for example Wordsworth and Ruskin) to the Scout movement, Woodcraft Folk and adventure education, and from a range of progressive educationalists such as Pestalozzi, Steiner, Froebel, Dewey, Isaacs, Montessori and McMillan (Cree and McCree, 2012). Forest School has evolved through a network of practitioners and, via consultation, established six principles:
Forest School is a long-term process of regular sessions, rather than one-off or infrequent visits; the cycle of planning, observation, adaptation and review links each session.
Forest School takes place in a woodland or natural environment to support the development of a lifelong relationship between the learner and the natural world.
Forest School uses a range of learner-centred processes to create a community for being, development and learning.
‘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.
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.
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.
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).
This chapter will look at how the Girl Guides movement, and Girlguiding UK specifically, has embraced the opportunities and dealt with the challenges of the digital age and how it supports and promotes the mental health and wellbeing of girls and young women (GYW) through its network of volunteer leaders and its programme of relevant, fun but challenging activities.
The Girl Guides movement has responded to local need and culture but has at its core a common set of beliefs about the need to improve the lives of GYW through social action, self-development, leadership, female friendship and fun. The World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts (WAGGGS) is a girls-only movement spanning 150 countries and including 10 million girls. WAGGGS’ aim is to empower GYW to develop the skills and confidence to make positive changes in their own lives, in their community and in their country. As Dua, a 13-year-old from Pakistan describes:
Being a part of Girlguiding is something else, especially living in a country with issues around women’s rights. My favourite part of Guiding is how it empowers girls and shapes us into better versions of ourselves. It teaches us to love our sisters and stand up for what is right. But most importantly, it teaches us to believe in ourselves. I have heard numerous stories of people transformed through Guiding, including being encouraged to speak out and never give up hope. (WAGGGS, 2020a)
WAGGGS uses digital technology to improve the lives of girls in a number of ways, including a partnership with GenU and UNICEF’s U-Report (WAGGGS, 2020b), a free social media tool that allows local young reporters to use online polling to capture and report the views of under-represented groups in their community.
The importance of developing emotional competence and friendship skills in school-aged children cannot be underestimated (Rubin, Bukowski and Parker, 2006).1 Friendships experienced in childhood provide us with a blueprint for relationships in adult life (Monsour, 2008). Not only do they offer support in coping with stresses encountered at home or in school, they also protect against the adverse effects of negative peer relations such as bullying (Cardoos and Hinshaw, 2011). Importantly, good-quality friendships can improve children’s attitudes towards and engagement with school (Perdue, Manzeske and Estell, 2009). In the highly digital world which many children inhabit, the internet and social networking sites have opened up new avenues to make and maintain friendships both off- and online (Gluer and Lohaus, 2016). This development can be seen as both a force for good – enabling children to discover novel ways of establishing new friendships and communicating with existing friends – and a force for bad, as abuse of such technologies can lead to new and pervasive forms of social exclusion and bullying (Frith, 2017).
In particular, for those children who internalise their difficulties and tend to be quiet, anxious and withdrawn, securing a supportive peer group can prove challenging – and these children are more likely to be at risk of abuse and bullying (Ohl, 2009). They may struggle to initiate peer interaction and as a result are more vulnerable to peer rejection and social anxiety. Furthermore, recent research in the Netherlands suggests that children with social anxiety are more prone to perceive that they are less likeable by their peers and to anticipate rejection even when this may not be the case (Baartmans et al, 2020), setting in train a self-perpetuating cycle of increased anxiety and low self-esteem.
The provision of counselling support in primary and secondary schools in the United Kingdom has increased exponentially since the 2000s. A report by Place2Be and the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT, 2020) identified that between 2016 and 2019 school-based counselling support had risen from 36 to 66 per cent. This increased capacity in schools was a strategic response to the widely reported rise in psychological distress in both children and young people (CYP) (NHS Digital, 2018; The Children’s Society, 2020), and is grounded in the belief that schools are best placed to deliver mental health and wellbeing support (Mackenzie and Williams, 2018). One provider, the School Counselling Partnership (SCP), is a locally developed service that delivers to both primary and secondary schools across London and is the focus of this chapter.
The expansion of counselling services in schools has seen a concurrent rise in the use of virtual and digital modes of delivery. A review by the Early Intervention Foundation (EIF) (Wilson and Waddell, 2020) suggests that some interventions for CYP are being successfully implemented using online interfaces, including mental health and wellbeing programmes. This style of delivery would appear highly desirable to a generation of new digital natives who are already comfortable and conversant with online activities in other areas of their lives. However, the EIF’s review of 21 virtual and digital mental health and wellbeing interventions urges caution in assuming CYP’s inevitable engagement and reduced attrition (Wilson and Waddell, 2020). The online interventions that reported the strongest impact on CYP were those that adopted a cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) technique (Grist et al, 2019).
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.
A generational divide exists between parents’ understanding of what their children know about sex and relationships and what their children have experienced online and ‘in real life’.1 Ironically, although we live in a hypersexualised world, parents often do not realise that they are their children’s sex educators and can be unaware of the consequences of relinquishing that role and responsibility to other influences. Children and young people (CYP) learn not only in the classroom, in the playground and from their surrounding culture, but also from what they find or are shown online (Livingstone et al, 2017). From an increasingly young age, children are exposed to sex and relationships topics through the media, social media, the internet, sexting and pornography. However, their moral compass will still be their parents’ values and perspectives. In talking openly at home parents can improve their children’s mental health, reinforce safeguarding and strengthen the parent– child connection. Parental engagement is the crucial missing link in sex education.
Outspoken Sex Ed – a social enterprise focused on giving parents the language, skills, knowledge and confidence to talk openly with their children about sex, bodies, consent and relationships – was founded on the conviction that CYP have a right to accurate information about sex and relationships that addresses their curiosity, desire and need to understand the bigger sex-education picture. In encouraging parents to look back at their own formative sex education and reflect on their current attitudes, it aims to help them take inspiration from their hopes for their children’s positive sex and relationships experiences.