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Digital Wellbeing – Supporting students to develop healthy digital habits

Higher education, online learning and remote student services have become synonymous since the outbreak of Covid-19 in early 2020. Whilst the initial move to digital was orchestrated as a stop-gap measure to deliver learning and provide support, there is now an acknowledgment across the sector that online learning and remote student services will continue to have a place in higher education. Given recent announcements that some UK institutions will carry on with a blend of in-person and online tuition and support services until the autumn term, the need to support students to develop and maintain healthy digital habits is as pressing now as it was at the beginning of the pandemic. 

Gareth Hughes, psychotherapist, researcher, and writer on student wellbeing and Clinical Lead for Student Space, run by Student Minds, the UK’s student mental health charity, acknowledges that being online isn’t necessarily detrimental to our mental health.

“In fact it can have a positive impact on your wellbeing. How you engage with it, and what you use it for, will define whether it boosts or erodes your wellbeing.”

The world of online learning and virtual environments and the intellectual stimulation it provides can help students feel more connected to others, more productive and more engaged. However, learning and delivering services online can also make students feel disconnected and fatigued, as well as increasing their concerns about staying motivated and absorbing the material. This may lead to students feeling lethargic and drained, and can contribute to spikes in anxiety and low mood. This is partly because screens keep us from other activities that are good for our wellbeing such as experiencing nature, daily exercise and social support. 

The key, therefore, is to promote as much balance as possible between time on and off screens and to be mindful of how students are spending their days.

Michael Priestley, a PhD student at Durham University studying student mental health and education policy, observes

“Without physically going into university or meeting people face-to-face, I’ve found that I’m spending most of my days in the same space, just moving from screen to screen. This is making me feel tired, isolated and demotivated and over time it’s starting to really impact on my mood.”

These honest reflections demonstrate the difficulties a virtual university environment can present for students today. 

In addition, Michael also had some words of encouragement to share.

“Remember, your university, academic tutors and support services have all worked hard to put in place online systems to allow you to digitally socialise, study and receive support. These platforms might feel strange and confusing and unfamiliar, but find the courage to engage with whatever your university has to offer digitally whilst also experimenting with what will work best for you and your wellbeing. Be clear about your needs and resources to see what adjustments can be made.”

Higher education providers have worked tirelessly over the past year to ensure the online learning environment and remote support services for students is as engaging and accessible as possible. Below, we share some of Student Minds’ top four tips for continuing to support students’ digital wellbeing: 

1. Ensure your support services signposting is universal and easily accessible for all students 

The most incredible support services cannot be effective without students knowing about and accessing their support. At Student Minds, we advocate for a whole university approach to mental health, through the University Mental Health Charter. This means that all university staff need to be aware of the institution’s digital and in-person provision for student mental health. Staff need to have signposting tools to hand, so they can share up-to-date information with students, in ways that are right for them. 

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2. Encourage balanced engagement with online learning 

It is essential to promote engagement with online learning. It is equally as important to emphasise the need for students to balance their digital studies alongside making time to look after their mental health and wellbeing. Does your timetabling allow for regular breaks? Are you actively encouraging students to step away from the screen throughout the day? Are students able to set clear boundaries about being online to establish an effective online learning routine? 

3. Create spaces for students to engage with classmates online

Students are often the first source of support for their peers, it is therefore essential that they are given the tools to engage and communicate with classmates effectively online. At Student Minds we know peer support is an incredible tool in championing student mental health. Creating spaces for conversations and building an online community for students can be a powerful aid in combating isolation and loneliness. 

4. Establish online communication guidance and requirements 

Communicating over Zoom and other platforms can feel strange without the usual in-person social cues and can exacerbate anxieties around communication for students - not to mention additional problems arising from poor internet connections. It is essential students and staff are given guidance on what is required of them in online learning e.g. cameras on, microphones muted, when they can contribute, chat functions etc. It is also vital that staff make students aware of their contactable hours and methods so that students know when and how to seek support. 

Digital wellbeing tips for students are available on Student Space:

There is no one size fits all approach to supporting students’ digital wellbeing – nor should there be. Both staff and students are all experiencing online learning individually and each have their own unique needs. However, if we are able to prioritise a whole university approach to mental health and digital wellbeing – we move closer to transforming the state of student mental health so that all in higher education can thrive. 

About Student Minds

Student Minds is the UK’s student mental health charity. We empower students and members of the university community to develop the knowledge, confidence and skills to look after their own mental health, support others and create change.

We train students and staff in universities across the UK to deliver student-led peer support interventions, as well as research-driven campaigns and workshops. By working collaboratively across sectors, we share best practice and ensure that the student voice influences decisions about student mental health. 

We are delivering Student Space to help students navigate university life during the coronavirus pandemic. Student Space is available to all higher education students across England and Wales and provides students with a trusted place to: 

Together, we will transform the state of student mental health so that all in higher education can thrive. For more information, visit https://www.studentminds.org.uk/

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