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Protecting and educating our children and upholding students' well-being is not just a school problem--it’s a societal problem.

It takes a village to protect students’ well-being in the digital age

Protecting and educating our children is not just a school problem--it’s a societal problem

Key points:

School used to be about the “Three Rs”–reading, writing, and arithmetic. And, while those are still foundational to education, there’s now a fourth pillar of knowledge school districts need to impart upon their students, and it’s how to navigate today’s connected, digitally enabled world.

Unfortunately, collectively, as a society, we’re on the precipice of failing the most vulnerable members of our communities: our children.

Our schools and communities need to increase the conversation around student well-being and come to grips with the fact that we’re confronted by a deepening mental health crisis among children. Consider the following somber statistics:

  • Suicide is the third leading cause of death among high school-aged youths aged 14–18 years. In 2021, the suicide rate for that age group was 9.0 per 100,000 population, accounting for one out of five deaths (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).
  • In 2020, approximately 105,000 youths aged 14–18 years visited emergency departments for self-harm injuries (CDC).
  • In 2019, among children aged 6-12, there were 5,485 emergency room or inpatient visits for suicidal thoughts, a 115 percent increase from 2016 (Children’s Hospital Association).
  • In 2019, one out of every five (20.2 percent) students report being bullied (National Center for Educational Statistics).
  • Between 2017 and 2022, money lost by young adults from scams grew by more than 2,000 percent compared to 805 percent for senior citizens, and scams included social media influence, online gaming, and sextortion (Social Catfish).

Data is being crunched for the most recent years. But, as an educator with 24 years of experience in a school district of over 13,000 students, coming out of the pandemic, the hard truth of the matter is the situation is not getting better; it’s getting worse.

The double-edged sword of technology

The global COVID-19 pandemic sped up the adoption of technology in K-12 schools, with most every district deploying a 1:1 technology model where each student is provided their own personal learning device. The new, digital classroom opened wide the doors to vast amounts of information and learning.

It also sprung the dangers of the digital world onto children who simply don’t have the coping skills developed through life experiences.

“Back in the day,” our lives as children were framed in the context of our families, our friends, our neighborhoods, and our towns. Remember how we were taught to not talk to strangers, and never, ever get in a car with a stranger? 

Now, I’m willing to wager that nearly everyone reading this article has used an app to call a stranger and arrange for a ride in their car. The world has changed drastically, and our children are not immune to it. Today, through connected devices, the entire globe provides the contextual backdrop for our children.

Bullying, for example, used to be a rather isolated situation. A bully or two may have haunted school hallways, the lunchroom, and recess area, but after school, the bullying tended to end. Today, in our 24x7x365 connected environment, bullying never stops. Moreover, it’s not just a bully or two. Rather, bullies are magnified exponentially by the internet, with bullies, both children and adults, “dogpiling” in comment sections of social posts. 

Late in 2023, the Anxiety & Depression Association of America reported that anxiety disorders are the most common mental illnesses in the U.S. and affect over 40 million adults, or 19.1 percent of the population. Those are adults struggling to cope in today’s world where they are inundated with digital content 24 hours a day–and a great deal of it is misinformation. 

Now, imagine placing that burdensome weight on the shoulders of an 11-year-old 5th grader. Adults, even with their life experiences, struggle to cope, with many not knowing where to turn. How are we helping our most vulnerable–our children?

When it comes to the safety of children, there’s a tendency, perhaps, to think only of horrible, tragic events like school shootings. But our problems go deeper and wider than that. 

It will take a village

Protecting and educating our children is not just a school problem–it’s a societal problem. It starts at home with parents and guardians, and it expands out to include schools, the community, and the government. 

First, we must be unafraid to discuss the issues. No longer can it be acceptable for us to be naive enough to think that declining mental health is either unimportant, insignificant, or a problem for some other community. 

Secondly, parents and guardians need to be involved and aware of their children’s needs and well-being. Being a kid today is unequivocally not like it was being a kid just a generation ago. Parents need to quickly understand that it’s vastly different.

Third, schools need to work more closely with parents. A new best practice is emerging in monthly technology meetings with parents, showing them and educating them on the digital world in which their children live. Even the most well-meaning parents have a difficult time keeping up with the constant evolution of the digital environment. School IT professionals can help.

Additionally, schools must continue to integrate lessons into curricula that help students understand widespread risks and dangers and provide them multiple avenues to reach out for help and assistance. It’s okay to not be okay–we need to take the fear out of asking for help.

Furthermore, given the proliferation of tech and the deepening of the mental health crisis, schools need to monitor online activity for signs of concern. Student safety and wellness technology exists, and schools need to overcome their concerns about resources, workload, liability, and “what ifs”–to not do so borders on negligence and a dereliction of their duty of care.

Lastly, the coalition of school administrators, parents and guardians, and students must press local, state, and federal government to take accountability and action in creating programs that promote positive mental health. There’s a tendency to take reactive measures to troublesome instances rooted in mental health issues. It’s past due to taking a more proactive stance.

Stepping forward

Coping in today’s digital world can be difficult. Truthfully, as a parent to both a 13- and 7-year-old, there are times that I’m terrified of what might happen within the walls of my own home. 

As adults, we struggle to come to grips with all that we see and hear. But we must remember that our children see and hear the same, and without the somewhat repetitive routine of career work, maybe even more. The result is an unprecedented and almost unimaginable burden we’ve thus far expected them to carry without help. Together, we need to change that–and the good news is that we can!

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