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How Does Academic Stress Affect Mental Health in the Age of Digital Learning

academic stress

It’s clear to everyone that the events of 2020 have led to uncertain and unprecedented times. Americans are scrambling to pick up the pieces of lost loved ones or lost jobs. But it’s not just adults feeling the anxiety of it all: our kids are feeling it too. Add increased academic stress on top of the rapid changes caused by the pandemic and we can only imagine the toll this year is taking on our kids’ mental health. 

Aside from the pandemic, there are many other reasons why kids might be so stressed. Full schedules and responsibilities, relentless media overload, and less sleep are all examples of our kids’ stressors. One of the biggest reasons kids are stressed is academic pressure. While this isn’t a new problem, kids are experiencing academic pressure from an earlier age than ever before. Besides pressure to succeed, technology has changed the landscape for how kids engage with their schoolwork, instructors and peers. 

Whether kids are distance learning at home or are in the classroom, academic stress continues to affect them. No, more than ever, though, we need to address how typical academic stress impacts mental health. To do this, it’s also important to examine how digital learning has impacted traditional academic stress.

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Relationship between academic stress and mental health 

academic stress

Academic stress and its impact on mental health is a well-researched topic. Research shows that academic stress leads to less well-being and an increased likelihood of developing anxiety or depression. Additionally, students who have academic stress tend to do poorly in school. This shows how this stress can keep kids from doing as well as they could. Research also suggests that if given help or a better academic situation, students will have better mental health. So how does the influence of new technology impact academic stress?

Consider the hidden impacts of technology 

As technology evolves and digital devices become more accessible, educators have embraced technology to enhance learning environments. Of course, technology has amazing benefits for all kinds of learners! While there are clear benefits and opportunities, these can also be a lot for kids to handle.

For example, kids can hear, see or read instructions multiple times, work at their own pace, and have access to more materials and resources. However, this also means that there are more distractions and potentially more ways miscommunications can happen. Technology is a gift, but considering the other academic stressors, it can be a double-edged sword. As adults, we’re accustomed to IT interfaces and tools, but for students, especially younger students, it can seem overwhelming. 

With technology comes new challenges that add to the pressures of schooling. Especially in a more virtual setting necessitated by COVID-19 in some circumstances. There’s more to track and know. Instead of just learning how to solve math problems, kids must troubleshoot their WiFi connection or other technological problems. If a page reloaded and their work was lost, which many of us can relate to, it can be a struggle to complete key assignments. If there was trouble asking teachers questions as they present material, kids might scramble to find answers online afterward. These are just some examples of many that show that learning online is much more than just learning the subject matter. While digital learning is powerful, there are examples of increased frustration and stress with students. 

Considering such scenarios, it’s clear that digital tech can contribute to typical factors of academic stress, such as trouble understanding new material. But now we have to remember that a digital learning framework is always present with students and learn to adapt.

The virtual classroom: Class is always in session

academic stress

There used to be a time where kids could go home and be generally disconnected from school. Sure, they had homework to complete but they usually had time to relax and recharge. But now kids have online portals to log in to and can easily send or receive messages from instructors or classmates. While accessibility is good, the flip side is that students can be logged on to an excess. Getting away from school and schoolwork is important for kids, just as it is for remote workers to disconnect.

Playing outside, reading for fun, and hanging out with friends or family are important leisure activities for de-stressing. But these activities can be less enjoyable if kids feel they need to check on assignments or be online for discussion. Just like adults need to disconnect from work emails, kids should be able to log off from school. If your kids are taking digital classes, consider creating boundaries from school for your children. It’s important for their mental health.  

Separated from support

For years, researchers have been saying that even though digital devices give us more ways to connect, they can also make us more lonely. While technology might be able to bridge the gap to make learning happen, it isn’t the same as direct contact. Technology can enhance learning, but it can sometimes limit or lack the support systems in place at school. 

Kids who are strictly distance learners may be more at risk for feelings of isolation and loneliness, especially if they aren’t used to it. Stress can build from not being able to simply raise a hand and ask for clarification from teachers. Similarly, not being able to lean across desks and ask classmates for feedback may increase feelings of being alone. Remote instruction requires students to be more proactive in their learning. For those who are shy and/or afraid to speak up even when in-person, this presents a deeper challenge.

Figuring out technology, constant connectedness, and a lack of support are stressors that make school even more difficult for kids. This new kind of academic stress only adds to the typical academic pressure to succeed. Handling it all is a lot to ask of our kids, and it’s not surprising to see their mental health start to suffer. 

Ending the stigma

academic stressAll this talk of education in the digital, pandemic age is stressful in and of itself! But here’s the good news: the stigma against mental health is weakening

Through organizations like the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI),  The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), and The Child Mind Institute, Americans are starting to take mental health more seriously. Further, educators and parents alike are considering how kids might be affected by academic pressure. 

The more awareness and understanding surrounding academic stress, how it is evolving, and how our kids are affected, the better. School boards and administrations, educators, and parents can work together to make academic stress more manageable for all students. To start helping your loved ones master their mental health and stress, particularly with school, start by opening the conversation. Showing you care and want to help is a huge step to creating positive ways to help your kids succeed! 


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