Academy of Finland Professor Katariina Salmela-Aro from the University of Helsinki has been investigating the wellbeing of adolescents and schoolchildren since the 1980s. Her recent findings have been alarming.
Some of Salmela-Aro’s studies are longitudinal, meaning that certain groups of young people have been observed for several years. The latest example is a yearly follow-up of roughly 3,000 young Helsinki residents born in 2000. The follow-up started on the seventh grade and continued till the students graduated from the upper secondary school.
In this study, which concluded just before the pandemic, researchers were able to recognise five different paths of wellbeing. Three of these paths covered 90 per cent of the pupils. In all of these three paths, malaise increased. In the other of the remaining two groups, malaise remained high throughout the research period, and in the other group it stayed low.
The results in total turned out to be worrying: school wellbeing had not increased in any of the groups.
“We have never seen a similar situation before,” says Salmela-Aro, who is trained in developmental psychology.
She identifies measures that could help reverse the situation.
1. Support for transitions
According to Salmela-Aro, it appears that rapid increases in malaise can be linked with school transitions, such as the step from lower to upper secondary education. In transitions, the environment often changes, with the old circle of friends left behind.
“It’s important for young people to feel that they are attached to a group. We should provide help in this. The support for transitions does not necessarily have to be substantial, but it should be targeted appropriately. Precise measures could be defined through research.”
2. Scrap the concept of screen time
Young people spend a lot of time on their smartphones. This is particularly confusing to the generations who have not grown up in a digital world. In a way, it is natural to assume a connection when the time spent on mobile phones and the malaise of young people have increased at the same rate.
“However, the problems arise in another way. Young people who find themselves very lonely or, for example, have mental health problems start using their mobile phones in an addictive manner, as such devices are designed to be extremely addictive. It creates a vicious circle where school performance starts to decline or malaise to increase.”
According to Salmela-Aro, using screen time alone as a measure of wellbeing should in fact be abandoned altogether.
“Screen time itself says nothing about mobile phone use. You should also understand that the digital environment is a genuine social environment for adolescents. Smartphones are safety blankets – even if young people don’t use them, they know they can quickly get in touch with their peer groups using phones.”
3. More student places in higher education
At the moment, the wellbeing of general upper secondary school students in particular is eroded by mutual competition and calculations to secure a place in further education. Admission to the most popular fields in higher education requires that the subjects studied in general upper secondary school are accurately tailored and that their grades are as high as possible.
Many who fail to be admitted to their first-choice discipline on the first try after graduation decide to hold a gap year and apply again. It is not worth accepting a place elsewhere, as in doing so students lose their first-time applicant status, falling behind more recent Finnish matriculation examination graduates in the subsequent application rounds.
In other words, the system does not allow experimentation and trying out various fields.
“Young people feel that they should immediately know the course of their lives. They don’t have the courage to commit because they think that by choosing one option they are turning their backs on another. Or if their choice is not the best option after all, how do they go on from that?” Salmela-Aro says.
In fact, she wonders why must there be such intense competition for admission, especially on the higher education level.
“Why can’t we have more student places? After all, we are already lagging behind the goal of making half of the relevant age group holders of a higher education degree in 2030.”
4. More understanding and interaction skills
Salmela-Aro would like teachers to have more training in understanding the formation of adolescent identity and ways of providing pupils related support. Skills in negotiation and interaction should also be included in the toolboxes of both teachers and pupils.
“These and other socio-emotional skills boost both wellbeing and studying, together with resilience. It would do well to remember that learning and wellbeing go hand in hand – anxiety prevents pupils from learning.
5. Wellbeing as a goal in its own right
In the aftermath of the pandemic, attitudes to the wellbeing of work communities have undergone a major change. A similar change of mindset is appearing in the school sphere. For example, the latest Finnish principal barometer survey, encompassing roughly 700 school principals, indicates that principals are now seeking training in wellbeing management.
“In society, we have come to understand that wellbeing is a goal that must manifest in all areas, and that it cannot be overlooked without consequences. In this regard, professional life and school do not differ,” Salmela-Aro points out.
6. Break out from the silos: Empower young people with the chance to make a difference
If young people feel ill, it is not just about them. The malaise of one group illustrates that there is something wrong with society as well, and that its structures have to be redesigned.
“We should give young people genuine opportunities to take action, which would, for example, alleviate their climate anxiety. However, you should keep in mind that the measures young people come up with may differ from those conceived by adults. Understanding this requires a lot from both parties.”