For the adults in K-12 schools, the biggest source of students’ mental angst is clear: bullying online through social media and via text.
But high school students have a very different opinion on what’s dragging down their mental health. Among teens, the most cited factor is stress related to finishing schoolwork and homework, followed by grades.
Those results come from a pair of new surveys from the EdWeek Research Center, which polled high school-age kids in September and educators—teachers, principals, and district leaders—in October. The detailed results of the surveys are listed in the charts below, but first some analysis.
What’s going on here? How can educator and student perspectives on these issues be so different? Part of the discrepancy might be due to the fact that the educator poll included teachers and principals from elementary and middle schools as well as high schools, whereas the student survey was of only high school students.
But another reason is that students and educators simply have different perceptions of what the root causes are of students’ mental health problems.
Combined, both sets of responses offer a fuller picture of what is corroding students’ mental wellbeing, said Sharon Hoover, a professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. The survey results also serve as a warning to adults not to become too fixated on one cause of students’ mental health problems, she said.
Hoover, who is also a co-director of the National Center for School Mental Health, said it’s not surprising that adults would be quick to point to issues related to social media use as students’ primary stressor.
“Some of the adults might be more keen to identify something that they didn’t experience as a stressor when they were growing up,” said Hoover. “I think there is a quick assumption that the increase in mental health concerns must be related to something new to this generation. I don’t think it’s completely unfounded. The data does suggest that, yes, there are harms that come with exposure to social media, especially certain uses of social media like passive utilization where you’re just scrolling and looking at photos and doing a comparison analysis of your life to others.”
Educators might also be more likely to minimize—or fail to recognize altogether—how the schoolwork and homework they assign might be hurting students’ mental health.
“There has been the status quo to assign homework, so adults aren’t thinking about this,” even as pressure to catch students up academically after the pandemic may have pushed the amount of schoolwork and homework teachers are assigning beyond a healthy threshold, Hoover said.
For their part, teens might be deemphasizing the negative impact social media use is having on their mental health. It is designed to be addictive, said Hoover, and teens might be incentivized to downplay how anything related to social media, like online bullying, is hurting their moods for fear that it might be taken away from them. Teens may also not be aware of how social media might be making them feel bad, she said.
Ultimately, Hoover said it’s important for educators to understand that it’s a complex mix of factors—ranging from students’ physical health to the socioeconomic status of their families to the political environment around them—that are contributing to their mental health challenges. Not recognizing that can have consequences, she said, especially if all the solutions are focused on only one potential factor, like online bullying or social media use.
“This is why we ask multiple people about this because everyone has a unique and valuable perspective, and when you have grown up with social media you may not be able to recognize some of the harms,” said Hoover. “But also the youth are presenting this perspective that is important: we know that the academic context right now is burdensome on their mental health.”
The EdWeek Research Center surveys also asked students and educators if students had an adult they felt safe speaking with at school. Again, there are noteworthy differences between educator and student answers—and even the responses among students based on race—which are detailed in the charts below.