Parents ‘bubble-wrapping’ children may damage mental health, committee told

Schools face rising ‘interpersonal issues’ which often occur on social media

While physical bullying is decreasing, online bullying and mental health problems are growing among pupils, an Oireacthas committee has heard. Photograph: iStock

While physical bullying is decreasing, online bullying and mental health problems are growing among pupils, an Oireacthas committee has heard. Photograph: iStock

 

Parents “bubble-wrapping” their children and increased use of social media appear to be damaging the mental health of young people, a school manager has warned.

On Tuesday, the Oireachtas Committee on Education heard from school managers at primary and second level over the extent of school bullying and mental health problems in schools .

Seamus Mulconry, secretary general of the Catholic Primary School Managers’ Association, said while physical bullying is decreasing, the issue of online bullying and mental health problems are growing.

International research by experts such as Jonathan Haidt, a US-based social psychologist, indicated that over-protective parenting and social media may be linked to a rise in mental ill-health, he said.

“We’re bubble-wrapping children when they’re young and they are not getting access to the kind of experiences that test their limits: to run or be a bit reckless and find out what works or doesn’t work,” Mr Mulconry said.

He gave the example of a school which recently stopped children running in the playground following a complaint from a parent whose child had fallen.

“You know, children will fall. If we stop them falling, it’s not actually good for them. They need to learn their limits.

“I think these factors are feeding into a more challenging situation for schools,” said Mr Mulconry, whose association provides advice to about 2,800 schools.

He said children have less time for unstructured play outside school compared to previous generations who often developed social and coping skills with others by having the “corners rubbed off” them.

Interpersonal issues

However, he said schools were experiencing a rise in interpersonal issues which were often occurring outside school on social media.

“There is an obligation to deal with these matters in school in certain circumstances as part of the anti-bullying procedures, which can be extremely challenging as the school has no control of what happens when pupils leave the school grounds,” he said.

“Schools are also reporting to us that these issues are taking up more and more time at the expense of teaching and learning.”

Ann O’Dwyer of Education and Training Boards Ireland - which manages State-run primary and secondary schools - said building resilience among young people was crucial.

School culture was also an important influence on tackling bullying at local level. Care, respect and equality were the foundation for responding to bullying and any mental health impacts, she said.

John Curtis of the Joint Managerial Body, the largest secondary school management body, said while there was no “silver bullet” to resolve the problem of bullying in schools , the issue required a school-wide response.

He said an emphasis on inclusion, the use of anti-bullying ambassadors and educating by-standers around the importance of reporting bullying were among the ways some schools were tackling these issues.

However, he said the State was “neglecting its responsibility” to provide schools with the resources they need to tackle bullying effectively and to support positive mental health development among students.

“Our schools have been doing more with less since the financial crash of 2009. In particular, schools have had reduced allocations of teachers and guidance counsellors which have not been restored,” he said.

“Yes, our teacher workforce numbers have increased but this is due to significant student population growth but at school level, the cuts in staffing have never been fully restored.”

He said greater investment is needed to provide greater support for year heads and student support teams; guidance and counselling; and leadership development on school-wide approaches that work.

Psychologists

Mr Mulconry also said the presence of psychologists to support pupils in schools with mental health problems is “rarer than the corncrake” and that referrals to child and adolescent mental health services can take up to 18 months.

Overall, however, he said said latest evidence indicates that the vast majority of parents are happy with their child’s school and surveys show that 93 per cent of nine-year-olds like school.

“I would suggest is a huge change from how school was experienced in times gone by,” he said.

He also called on social media and tech companies to do much more to “come up with solutions, not excuses” in tackling bullying online.

“They have got away lightly and the need to be made more accountable,” he said.

Social media and smart phones were designed to be addictive, he said, and were having a profound impact on the psychology and development of children.

Mr Mulconry said these firms should have the technological expertise to use artificial intelligence and other methods to detect bullying behaviour.