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Social Media Bans Alone Won’t Improve Mental Health, Say Student Advocates

There is a significant perception gap between educators and students when it comes to the impact of social media on mental health. Educators are quick to blame platforms like TikTok, Instagram and Snapchat—or at least argue that they have exacerbated students’ mental health problems. But for students, the list of causes is much longer.

“We carry around a lot of emotional baggage. It’s invisible. As an athlete, I can tell you that there is a stigma around [having a] conversation about mental health [in my circle]. We need spaces to talk about mental health, just like our physical health,” said Anjali Verma, a student at the Pennsylvania Leadership Charter School University Scholars Program in Chester County, Pa.

Verma addressed her comments to a room full of school and district leaders at Education Week’s annual Leadership Symposium, held in Arlington, Va. on May 2.

Verma was joined by Ava Havidic, the president of the National Student Board Member Association and a student at the Millennium 6-12 Collegiate Academy in Tamarac, Fla. Havidic said the stigma around discussing mental health hides the full range of challenges students are dealing with daily.

“Students are part of the hustle culture, where rest isn’t prioritized and taking on more pressure is normalized,” Havidic said.

She and Verma both pointed out that students find it hard to excel at AP classes and coursework alongside family responsibilities or jobs.

When schools don’t give students the space to openly discuss their mental health challenges or aren’t transparent about the resources they have (or don’t have) to help students, young people are more likely to seek TikTok remedies.

“Students should know, from their school leaders, that they don’t have to struggle in silence,” said Verma.

Getting past the social media bugbear

Educators are concerned that apps like TikTok have the potential to contribute to poor mental health in students, but students and teachers disagree on the degree of impact.

In a nationally representative survey of 1,056 high school-age adolescents conducted in February and March, the EdWeek Research Center found that nearly three quarters said that social media either has no impact or a positive impact on their mental health and well-being. The participants pointed to several positive impacts of social media—they can find friends and learn about different cultures, and the platforms offer safe spaces that allow students of color and LGBTQ+ youth to connect with young people like them.

Havidic said social media is also a space where students can have open conversations about their mental health.

“We have to teach students how to use social media well … [and] budget their time. Instead of banning social media tools, there should be positive reinforcement when students use it well,” she said.

In fact, banning social media tools now could hurt students in the future, both student advocates said.

Students need the discipline to avoid social media when they get into higher education or jobs. Learning how to cope with its distractions and developing the ability to distinguish fake news from the truth are skills schools should focus on now so students are equipped to deal with it as adults.

Safe spaces and supportive adults

Schools can also create spaces, both physical and metaphorical, where the mental health conversation can happen without stigma.

Verma said she created a mental health club in her school. Within two weeks of starting, the club had over 50 members. Verma credits that to the fact that student clubs can potentially reach hard-to-reach students who might be more receptive to outreach from peers. She is also part of a national nonprofit that works specifically to remove the stigma among student-athlete communities in addressing mental health challenges.

“Only a third of our students [in our school] knew that we had a psychologist and social worker. Students were made aware of these resources and how to access them,” Verma said.

Such spaces can be created online, too, according to Havidic.

She’s been part of several online conversations that create awareness about mental health challenges, or, in small groups, have students discuss how they feel in school. The advantage with online spaces is that students can dial in from anywhere if they don’t have access to an in-person club or prefer the online option.

“It allows students to decompress,” Havidic said.

Supportive adults are another pillar for this work.

Havidic told the attendees of the Edweek conference that they need to know who’s representing the students on the school board so that they know how to receive student feedback. Havidic’s school has also created a principal advisory council, which seeks feedback from students on what’s working and what isn’t.

“We had an online career tool that was difficult for all students to navigate. The student council suggested a different tool, which had more inclusive options for those who didn’t want to go to a traditional four-year college. It reduces the stress students have about their future,” Havidic said.

For some mental health challenges, though, students need medical or psychological help that goes well beyond the training and abilities of classroom teachers or student peer groups. That’s where counselors and school psychologists come in.

Schools have long faced a staffing crunch in those areas, with mental health professionals in the system overrun by both their caseload and administrative duties

An attentive classroom teacher can be a backstop here.

“Even if you’ve referred a student to the counselor, you may need to track if the student actually went back. You need to watch out for signs of distress,” Havidic said.

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