A REPORT last week published by Reform Scotland reveals that too many young people are persistently absent from school.

The figures suggest that the figures vary across Scotland, and there have been fluctuations over the Covid period. But in short, more than 210,000 young people miss one day of school every fortnight. At high school, 40% of pupils miss a day per fortnight.

The report has generated a lot of interest and attention – largely because the figures don’t actually tell us why. At an event last week, teachers, parents and experts all considered that issue. In advance, I decided to ask the real experts: teenagers in our schools.

I asked them whether these figures surprised them, and what the figures reveal about teenagers and education.

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The teenage experts all agreed on one thing: during and after Covid-19, young people’s mental health has worsened significantly – to the extent that they are persistently absent from school.

Anxiety has increased exponentially, even among those young people who had never displayed any anxious tendencies prior to Covid-19.

Anybody who lived with teenagers during the Covid years will be familiar with the huge increase in symptoms associated with stress, worry and fear. Some have referenced it as a mental health crisis, confirmed by statistics but brought to life by anecdotal evidence shared by teenagers, parents and healthcare professionals.

Think again about the disruption of the Covid years.

On the social side, young people were wearing masks which, although absolutely essential, inhibited socialising. That was doubly hard and stressful for those who use sign language and lip reading.

Young people endured months of only associating on social media and online, but were then expected to adapt to socialising in person and returning to friend groups that might have evolved during lockdown.

They learned online, through a screen, and then had to suspend that in order to sit at a desk, in a classroom, learning in person.

I’m no expert, but just listening to teenagers, I could see the enormous disruption to their social lives and their social development. It was hard enough as an adult – but for high school pupils it happened just as they were maturing and becoming adults.

We can remember our own experiences as teenagers, when socialising was stressful. On top of that, we – understandably – disrupted teenagers’ social levels. It would be a miracle if that didn’t have a lasting impact.

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On top of that, Covid-19 restrictions inflicted another deep layer of uncertainty on our young people. There was no guarantee that there wouldn’t be another lockdown, and all of us were conscious that if we contracted Covid-19 we would be homebound for about two weeks.

I recall how excited some teenagers were about going back to school – who’d have expected that? – only for them to have to stay at home because a family member tested positive. Their disappointment was acute, and that happened time and time again.

We understand why, but it stands to reason that the additional stress, anxiety and uncertainty would have a lasting impact. Some pupils, who were already accessing support for their mental health, lost in-person contact with counsellors and teachers over that period, disrupting their ongoing support.

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Again, I am no expert, but surely even as a novice we can assume that there is a generational impact of Covid-19 disruptions.

Whatever the cause of persistent absence from school, we must recognise that it is vital we work with teenagers to understand the causes, symptoms and solutions for mental ill health amongst young people.

And we must establish opportunities to access care. In a recent conversation about young people’s mental health, it was brought to my attention that so often teenagers feel like they must be severely ill before they can access care.

In some health board areas, there is an increasing focus on preventative care – in other words, enabling young people to access initial mental health support before their health declines further. That is essential to see across Scotland.

It is important to state, however, that Covid-19 isn’t to blame for everything.

As part of our work to better support young people’s mental health, we also have to understand other root causes. The destruction of self-esteem and increase in bullying is often attributed to greater use of social media.

Adults, particularly politicians, reference social media as the cause of the decline of political debate. It enables hate, elevates anger and vitriol and platforms dangerous views.

If adults struggle with that, on Twitter/X, Facebook and Instagram, how much more will young people suffer from these same dangers?

For all of us, we carry around these dangers in our pocket and absorb them at least every hour if not every minute. That’s what social media apps on our smartphones do.

I’m regularly horrified by the weekly memo of how many hours I’ve spent on my phone.

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But, without sharing any secrets, I’m even more horrified when I learn how many hours some of the teenagers I know spend on their phones. I need my phone for work, and will often use it for emails, accounting for some of the time I spend on my phone.

The same isn’t true for young teenagers, which means that most of their time is spent on social media.

Now I am not in any way advocating for a golden age of the past when young people did not have phones or social media. I recognise that the world has changed, and young people know that social media is essential for friendships and socialising in 2023.

However, I think it is immensely unfair for adults to complain about the dangers of social media to their own mental health, without acknowledging that the impact on young people will inevitably be more acute.

Many of our social media platforms have less to do with networking, and far more to do with performance which is rewarded or punished by likes, retweets or comments.

Being constantly judged on social media platforms is incredibly difficult, and surely you don’t have to be a professional psychologist to suggest it might lead to greater levels of anxiety amongst our young people. Professional studies have confirmed this.

So, I have a radical suggestion which may not go down very well.

For young people’s mental health, I believe more schools should consider banning smartphones at school for younger teenagers. That means a complete ban.

I understand why parents would like young people to have a mobile at school, so that they can make contact en route to school and back home. I understand that completely – there are teenagers living in my home too.

I also understand that some schools suggest smartphones are required for learning. That idea concerns me – if a tool is required for learning, then it is incumbent on the school to provide it, not the pupil. There is a way round both of these criticisms of a ban.

I don’t think legislating away the dangers of social media is sufficient (or indeed will ever work).

Instead, we must listen to our young people, offer immediately accessible health care at precisely the point when it’s required, and work hard to remove the structural causes of anxiety, stress and mental ill health.

Our young people are incredibly resilient, talented and creative. They are truly our future.

Our responsibility is to understand how we can truly support them during a period of immense challenge.