The pandemic caused a steep rise in the number of children and teenagers experiencing mental health problems. Now, exacerbated by issues such as the cost-of-living crisis and social media use, young people are increasingly reporting anxiety, depression and loneliness.
Speaking to the education committee in parliament last week, England’s children’s commissioner Rachel de Souza said that introducing an extended school day, where children could interact with each other and take part in holistic activities rather than academic study, could improve their mental well-being and ease social isolation.
What does the research show?
De Souza conducted The Big Ask in 2021, a survey of half a million children in England. According to this research, the three main issues reported by children coming out of the pandemic were their mental health, their experience of school, and having things to do in their local area. The most common word that appeared in respondents’ answers was also “play”, according to De Souza.
Research from The Children’s Society charity also shows that over the past three years, the likelihood of a young person having a mental health issue has increased by 50 per cent, and now five in a class of 30 are likely to have one. Access to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (Camhs) is problematic – a third of children referred into NHS services are not accepted into treatment.
Other studies show that participation in team hobbies such as sports can significantly improve young people’s well-being, and decrease anxiety and depression. “Unsupervised” or “free” play in childhood has also been linked with improved physical and mental health in adulthood, such as a reduced prevalence of anxiety. Team sports teach children how to resolve disputes or work with others without teachers or parents intervening.
“It’s unequivocal that those relationships formed… are critical,” said De Souza. That’s why I want an extended day. We need to recognise the need for free play.”
What is the children’s commissioner calling for?
De Souza suggests that longer school days with a finish time of 5.30pm or 6pm would help instil more holistic and hobby-based learning into education. This could include team sports, drama, creative arts, library access and broader “life skills” such as cooking or home economics, and relationship and sex education.
She told the education committee it is crucial that young people are supported in “learning about life”. “There is something fundamental that children miss,” she said. “Education is so much more than just academic learning.” Ian Mearns, Labour MP for Gateshead, said that life skills had been “squeezed” because of the government’s drive towards a “knowledge-based curriculum”.
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School absences have doubled since the pandemic, with more than a third of secondary students classed as persistently absent in 2022 (which means they miss 10 per cent or more of classroom sessions). De Souza said there should be a “national campaign” to get children back to school, with schools having plans in place to “engage the disengaged” through trialling longer days for hobbies, quicker roll-out of in-school mental health support teams and ensuring all students with special educational needs and disabilities are offered assessments. She added that closing schools during lockdown had caused “immense damage” to children’s well-being.
What has been invested so far?
In 2019, then chancellor Sajid Javid pledged a £500m Youth Investment Fund, to help build 60 new youth centres across England, refurbish 360 existing youth facilities and provide more than 100 mobile facilities for harder-to-reach areas, as well as invest in the youth workforce.
The fund was stalled by the pandemic, and in 2021 it had not yet materialised – this year, it was announced the funding would be cut from £500m to £380m. Applications for the fund have now finally opened, but the Local Government Association (LGA) has called on central government to restore this £122m shortfall, and use it to invest in 1,200 youth and community support workers within councils.
The government has since committed to a further £560m through a “National Youth Guarantee”, which will see the National Citizen Service (NCS) receive funding to help young people from different backgrounds to become “world and work ready”. It has also committed to developing a youth strategy. The LGA said it was “vital these important measures are backed by adequate levels of funding so councils can invest in staff and youth work programmes”.
What about social media?
The committee discussed the challenge of convincing children to trade in time spent online for real-life activities. De Souza said that while the internet provides “great things” for children, there were “real issues around harms in the online world” and it could be an “absolute source of unhappiness”.
The education committee chair and Conservative MP for Harlow, Robert Halfon, said that he had spoken to children who are “in anguish” about their addiction to social media sites such as TikTok. He asked whether tech companies should face a levy, which could be used to fund mental health resilience and awareness programmes for children around using social media safely.
“A levy is the least we should be asking of them,” said De Souza, who added that adult websites (such as those hosting pornography) and social media sites should have strict age verification measures. “Giving children unlimited access to social media is putting something in their hands that’s as powerful as alcohol and drugs. It’s the dopamine hit – they can’t manage it. We need to educate parents and teachers and hold social media to account.”
The upcoming Online Safety Act seeks to prevent children from being subjected to harmful and illegal content online.
Where can I learn more?
Read more about the children’s mental health crisis.
Read more about the mental health epidemic among teenage girls.