The Lucky Generation: Why So Sad?
Never before has a generation had so much and seemingly wanted for so little. An expanding middle class has provided access to a family budget which young people use to spend 14X more on food (compared to adults); 8X more on books and clothes (up to 79% have purchased online); and twice as much on entertainment. This is a group highly connected, with PEW research noting 95 percent of teens (12 – 17) use the internet, and 81 percent of them use social media sites.
So, these cashed up, socially connected teenagers should be living the dream right?
The World Health Organisation notes “depression is the predominant cause of illness and disability for both boys and girls aged 10 to 19 years.” Suicide is the third most common cause of death in adolescents, behind traffic accidents and deaths from HIV/AIDS.”
And closer to home: most U.S. teens see anxiety and depression as major problems among their peers, with additional research from the Economist Intelligence Unit noting that Generation Z was ‘stressed, depressed and exam obsessed.’ For most of these teenagers, getting good grades is a bigger worry than drinking, unplanned pregnancies or gang-related violence.
So why is this such a personal and social problem right now? What can education do to best support our young people to both be able to make a life and to be happy?
The Unprepared Generation?
This is a complex topic and it appears additional pressures combined with the erosion of traditional protective factors may have created a perfect storm.
Some experts cite unrealistic expectations around social, work, academic, and sporting achievements combined with the constant bombardment from social media that we should always ‘feel good’, etc., may have contributed to young people lacking coping skills required to navigate these complex, ambiguous times. Some blame helicopter and bulldozer parents – those who monitor from above or remove all obstacles in their child’s path. It could also be argued that important protective factors like community engagement and family support, exercise, casual and unstructured play, and outdoor experiences have been reduced. Of course, technology is an often identified causation for the challenges facing youth, however, the evidence is sometimes contrary to popular opinion.
The Role of Technology: Helpful or Harmful?
The use and misuse of technology by young people is complex and certainly some platforms are intentionally designed to encourage addictive behaviours through rewards and disruptive elements. Yet there is an equal body of evidence around the use of technology to build social capital, explore identity, drive connections and support civic action in the real world.
It’s certainly convenient to blame technology for the challenges facing youth, and also important for educators to ensure they are grounded in reliable research studies.
UNICEF engaged in a thorough evidence-focused literature review to better understand how the time children spend using digital technology impacted their mental wellbeing, social relationships, and physical activity.
In summary, the evidence reviewed suggests that moderate use of digital technology tends to be beneficial for children’s mental wellbeing, while no use or too much use can have a small negative impact. And on social relationships, the evidence reviewed suggests mostly positive outcomes from using digital technology in terms of children’s social relationships – to an extent that consensus was said to exist.
Other clinical studies1 have intentionally explored the physiological and emotional benefits of video games, finding they can reduce stress and anxiety and improve mood.
Clearly, the question is not simply about the quantity of screen time but the quality of screen time.
A Wellbeing Agenda for Academic, Work and Life Success?
Against this backdrop of challenges, there has been a global resurgence around emotional intelligence, social and emotional learning and their contribution to student wellbeing.
Social and emotional learning (SEL) enhances students’ capacity to integrate skills, attitudes, and behaviors to deal effectively and ethically with daily tasks and challenges. Emotional Intelligence is a crucial capacity to develop in order to become aware of, control, and express emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships respectfully and empathetically.
Wellbeing is fundamental to successful learning. Student wellbeing can be defined as a state of positive psychological functioning that allows students to thrive and flourish in learning, work and life.
A recent study by The Economist Intelligence Unit found that educators around the world viewed wellbeing as an engine for cognition and motivation. 79% believed that positive mindsets were ‘very’ or ‘extremely’ important in helping students achieve academic success. Across the four countries involved, 53% had formal wellbeing policies in place and a further 44% were developing a policy or engaged in ad-hoc wellbeing activities. In the Class of 2030 and Life Ready Learning Research, 63% of teachers surveyed intentionally integrated social and emotional learning into their lessons, either directly or indirectly.
Bringing it Together: Can Technology Support a Social and Emotional Learning Agenda?
In the research, New Vision for Education: Fostering Social and Emotional Learning Through Technology, the World Economic Forum sought answers to these questions and assembled a list of 55 research-based digital product features that are highly correlated with the ten competencies and character qualities and identified five nascent technology trends – wearable devices, leading-edge apps, virtual reality, advanced analytics and machine learning, and affective computing – that extend ways of fostering social-emotional learning (SEL) and also offer potential for exciting new learning strategies.
Two recent research pieces, The Class of 2030 and Life Ready Learning (McKinsey and Company 2018) and Emotion and Cognition in the Age of AI (The Economist Intelligence Unit 2019) both identified the same three technologies as showing the greatest promise to progressing student-centered learning approaches and social and emotional learning; collaborative platforms, immersive experiences though mixed realities and AI fueled data and analytic platforms.
Both reports identify examples where the thoughtful use of technology is driving deeper learning or enabling interventions and approaches to be taken to the scale required to make a positive impact.
These approaches demonstrate to us that the greatest potential for technology in education is not simply to digitize the content, it is to humanize the learning.
1Ryan, R M, Rigby, C S & Przybylski, A; The motivational pull of videogames: A self-determination theory approach, Motiv Emotion, 2006: vol. 30, pp. 347-363