"It wasn't like that in my day......"
I can hear my grandparents and parents saying these words and swore I would never say them when I had children of my own, and yet recently I have found myself uttering this statement, much to the disgust and eye-rolling of my own children. The prompt for my old-aged outburst has been the discovery of the extent of pressure and stress that young people now experience, especially around exam time.
We really do live in different times and I don’t have a shred of envy towards young people today. Without wishing to sound really old, I could play outside in the street and cycle round to friends’ houses and my parents couldn’t reach me with an instant speed-dial. Bullying only happened in person and when I got home from school I could escape any school stress – in the absence of mobile phones and the internet I was uncontactable, no-one could get to me, I was in my safe place. I was unaware of what my peers were up to unless I was with them; I could occasionally read about celebrities in magazines but had to wait a week for a new publication. Trends and fads moved around the school slowly and once I was at home I could be my parents’ daughter, my sister’s sibling, I had no desire to be anyone else. As I grew older, anything I said and did was forgotten the following day, not etched in cyber-stone only to be dragged up in a first job interview. Rumours and gossip were at the behest of the old fashioned chinese whisper, instead of the viral grapevine of social media, with its global reach and virtual concrete memory bank. I’m pretty certain that if Facebook was around when I was at university, I may not have got my first job as a lawyer, but the less said about that, the better!
Social media certainly has its place, but for young people it can be a minefield of pressure, influence and coercion. My generation and those that came before me created this wonder of world-wide-web wizardry, but have handed it over to the next generation expecting them to know how to navigate it safely.
Adolescence is a time when the brain is still growing. This development (or remodelling) starts predominantly at the back of the teenage brain, and the pre-frontal cortex at the front of the brain is remodelled last. This pre-frontal cortex is responsible for decision making, the ability to plan and think about consequences of actions, solving problems and controlling impulses. As this area is the last to develop, teenagers will often rely on another area of the brain (the amygdala) to make decisions, and it is the amygdala that is associated with emotions, impulsivity, aggressive behaviour and instinct. I can see in my own teenage children that sometimes their thinking can seem very mature, but on another occasion they can be impulsive or illogical, or overly emotional. They, along with all teenagers, are working with a brain still not fully developed, and so may make rash decisions, act impulsively or give in to instinct. And yet we hand them the freedom of social media and expect them to take Facebook posts with a pinch of salt, to scroll through Instagram and not believe every female must look like Ariana Grande and to know when not to respond to negative messages sent through WhatsApp.
On top of these external societal pressures, at school young people are now faced with wider curriculum content that is squeezed into tighter time-frames within their academic year, and are not immune to the pressures faced by schools and teaching staff in wanting to achieve the best possible exam results, not just for the individual children but for the school as a whole. A local secondary school teacher informed me that she genuinely believed exams are harder now than they were ‘in my day’ due to this condensing of exam content and the pressure of school league tables, and children that don’t pass their english and maths exams now have to re-sit, unlike some of my less academic peers who instead were able to focus on vocational subjects. Whether you agree with this or not, the fact is that there is more pressure on young people now, especially around exam time. And this isn’t just a case of telling teenagers to pull their socks up and deal with it – the reality is that secondary schools, colleges and universities are dealing with unprecedented levels of self-harm, eating disorders and attempted suicides. When I was at school we barely knew of the terminology, let alone knew anyone whose poor mental health resulted in these behaviours.
As part of the #RunAndTalk scheme from England Athletics, a new initiative was launched this year called #RunAndRevise. During the week of 13-19th May 2019 England Athletics, supported by Mind the mental health charity, is encouraging all students to #RunAndRevise to take a break from exam revision and improve their mental wellbeing through running.
I am currently working on a satellite project funded by England Athletics at a local secondary school, supporting 25 young people who have been identified through a wellness survey as being highly stressed. We combine running with breathing exercises, elements of mindfulness practice and gratitude activities, explaining how all these things can be useful in everyday life, but especially at exam time. We also encourage them not to give up sport and to actively make time to exercise and move more, explaining how beneficial movement is for good mental health, at this time when they need it most.
Our generation created this minefield and it is our responsibility to help young people navigate safely through it. And if they can run through it, feeling the breeze against their faces, taking a break from exam revision and enjoying the buzz that comes from exercise, then all the better.
@MuddyRunners are hosting three public #RunAndRevise sessions in the Andover area and more details can be found on the poster, the Muddy Runners Facebook page and at www.muddyrunners.org.uk. There is no cost but you do need to book, by following this link: https://groups.runtogether.co.uk/MuddyRunners/Runs/Summary/eb8ac264-88aa-4228-b0b5-a35d64cb1a7e