Children’s mental health is a growing concern worldwide

Schoolchildren are struggling. Well beyond the stress to keep their scores up. Data show a worrying drop in levels of their mental health, which many experts link to the effect of pandemic closures—directly caused by the loss of social contacts, the deaths of loved ones and the impact of the jobs setbacks in their families.

Warnings on the possible tolls on children’s development and the potential effects of widening inequalities have been published starting from day one of the first lockdowns. But Covid-19 has reinforced some trends that, in many cases, were already latent. Undoubtedly, it has affected children’s well-being on a broader spectrum, impacting school performances and results, students’ well-being and even dropout quotas. But it has also raised worries within families.

According to Pew Research Center, at the beginning of 2023, for US parents, their kids’ struggles with mental health have become the top concern. 4 in 10 stated they were “very” or “extremely” worried that their offspring may struggle with anxiety and depression. 35% affirmed that feared their children being bullied in school.

Social and economic consequences

The situation has social and economic consequences. Many argue that the generations physically less affected by the pandemic are the ones who will be paying more in the long term and on multiple scales. From the difficulty of recuperating the lost education to long-term effects linked to poor mental health that can limit access to the labour market, and subsequently raise the costs of social support. All this translates into a loss of money at large.

The abstract nature of test score declines“, a study from Stanford University found, “often obscures the huge economic impact.” According to data, “the average American student could lose the equivalent of $70,000 in lifetime earnings if nothing was done to stem the effects of learning loss.

Monitoring the feelings

Younger generations experience rising levels of frustration, high stress, feelings of not belonging, and the struggle to cope (mentally) with the numerous contemporary crisis. And not even “the happiest country in the world” is exempt.

Mental health is declining in Denmark“, reads the opening remarks of the country’s 2022 “Better Plan” of the National Board of Health. Published to tackle the inefficiencies of its mental healthcare system in 10 years, the paper also frequently highlights how “massive” mental illness costs are. From the €127 million spent in 2010, in 2019, the country invested around €657 million in mental health. In particular, the rampant increase of children and young adults with depression recorded in the last three years has been described by the country’s major parties as challenging as inflation, the environmental crisis and national security.

At school

Some schools today try to tackle the situation by introducing monitoring apps in their daily schedules to check students’ moods. An intervention that has its estimators but also raises more than a few concerns. Undoubtedly, the widespread use of technology is no news in the Nordics, nor is it the tradition to centre education on the child’s experiences and encourage interactive learning, combining digital tools with more traditional ways.

And in Denmark, which already ranks as the most digitally developed nation among the UN’s surveyed e-governments for online services and infrastructure, schools have received significant investments in technology in recent years, especially for data-driven well-­being audits. In 2018, according to MIT Technology Review, “the government allocated $4 to $8 million, a fourth of the high school budget for teaching aids, to procuring digital platforms in 2018. In 2021, it invested some $7 million more.”

Estimators of digitally tracking students’ moods (not the only one around; some places in Finland, the UK, and the US are using similar tools) focus on the great potential of these apps. For starters, they argue, they can provide regular feedback to teachers to adjust their work in class.

However, similar tracking models have already been at the core of many discussions around the risks of extensive use of technology, especially when children and involved. Concerns regard, for example, the collection of personal data and the level of knowledge and understanding among parents. Experts are skeptical; There is not enough evidence, they consider, that similar digital tools can eventually solve social problems.

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