Towards happy and healthy students: digital wellbeing and COVID-19

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With an increased reliance on digital technology, students are having to address new mental health challenges and avoid online overload.

We define digital wellbeing as the impact of technologies and digital services on people’s mental, physical and emotional health. 

“The coronavirus pandemic has dramatically changed students’ day-to-day lives,” says the Office for Students (OfS) briefing note on supporting student mental health, published on 30 April 2020. 

With most teaching moved online, assessments cancelled or delayed, and many students having to move out of campus housing, the landscape in higher education (HE) and further education (FE) has changed in previously-unthought-of ways in mere months.  

Because of these mammoth changes, supporting mental health and wellbeing for students has risen to the top of the agenda for many institutions. In fact, a 15 May 2020 ssurvey from the Royal Society of Public Health (RSPH) finds that 70% of 18 to 24-year-olds feel anxious about the future more often than normal, compared with 47% of over-75s. 

So, what can universities and colleges do to support learners during this stressful period?  

Digital wellbeing diagram

Creative Commons attribution information

Text version of digital wellbeing diagram

The diagram is of four small adjacent triangles, which together form one big triangle.

Each triangle contains one of the following statements with an accompanying icon:

  • My own awareness and capacity to change my digital practices
  • Positive impacts of technologies on my wellbeing
  • How technologies can improve digital wellbeing
  • Negative impacts of technologies on my wellbeing

“Clear, accessible and timely” digital communications

Maintaining communications on essential services such as arrangements for teaching and learning, changes to assessments, and adjustments to accommodation costs, is all part of supporting student wellbeing, the OfS says, adding that these communications need to be “clear, accessible and timely”.

In fact, many students are relying on regular communication from their institution in order to feel connected. Kelly Housby, a student at Keele University, says she has been comforted by messages from the chancellor, head of school and others. Although at times the messages have expressed uncertainty in the face of the current situation, Kelly says:

“I think everyone I have spoken to is glad to get daily communications, to keep in contact, and there is some comfort that others reflect back their own uncertainty as we all pull together to get through this.”  

Access to a variety of communication tools is better than at any other time in history, says Chris Thomson, digital practice specialist at Jisc, but sometimes such tools can be a double-edged sword. 

“There is a real risk of overwhelming people with too much information,”

he says, and in order to make sure there aren’t too many methods of communication, the importance of the message should be a key consideration.

Does it need to go out immediately? Can it be communicated in a more effective way? What response are you expecting? These are all questions to ask before sending out messaging, says Chris.

“Consider what other streams of information people are dealing with at the same time,”

he adds.

“There will be important work- and study-related comms, but equally as important, family connections, too, especially as people are not able to physically visit loved ones.”  

Understand capabilities

Chris continues:

“I think those responsible for digital comms, whether they’re teaching or professional services staff, need to think about what context students are operating in.”

As well as life circumstances, such as childcare or other responsibilities, it’s worth also considering availability of devices and connectivity to students, as well as their differing levels of digital capability and skills.  

“Be aware of which platforms students and staff are required to use,”

adds Chris. 

Is it already familiar? Is it easily accessible? Does it require the disclosure a lot of personal data to interact with it? 

Rozanna Piddington, a student at the University of Bedfordshire, says that being expected to learn to use new digital platforms right now is just too much, when she is “already feeling so overwhelmed by the amount of work expected in this unprecedented time”. 

But physical access is also an issue. With many examinations and assessments moving online, Kelly Housby says:

“It’s also important not to assume that students have the hardware or internet access that is necessary to receive important messages, support or training.” 

And even for those who are able to engage with online learning, she thinks it’s important not to assume this is easy. She says:

“In the normal course of a degree, there will be some students who engage little with online learning and have rudimentary knowledge of virtual learning environments and online databases.

Now more than ever, these students will need technological support through any channels possible, from YouTube walkthroughs to instructive emails to personal tutor phone calls.”  

[#insertinlinedriver guide#]

Help students with facing the unknown 

As well as ongoing academic and access struggles, students in both FE and HE are having to deal with new levels of uncertainty, which is also causing anxiety for many.

Brad Miller, a student at Ravensbourne University London, has been both an FE and HE learner at the university, and explains how learners in both sectors are keen to know what effect the pandemic will have on their courses. He explains:

“With more questions being raised by students about the impact this lockdown will have on their qualification and mental health, the need to talk is necessary more than ever before.” 

Keeping in touch with students to make sure that their questions and concerns are addressed is more important now than ever, Brad adds:

“Right now universities and colleges need the student perspective as courses and health are affected.” 

Dealing with the pragmatic challenges of the pandemic and resulting lockdown are also adding to student stresses, says Kelly Housby, and echoes the OfS call to maintain informative communication:

“Any messages from universities offering understanding and a willingness to be flexible will be most welcome to students at this time, especially because, understandably, students are suffering higher levels of uncertainty leading to stress and anxiety.”  

But not all students will respond in the same way to the pandemic, or indeed to the digital technology thrust upon them, and noting these differences between students’ reactions to the pandemic is essential. 

A recent survey from the National Union of Students (NUS)1 reports that: “students appear to have a moderate fear of contracting coronavirus, with nearly half feeling somewhat scared that they will contract coronavirus and a further 15 per cent very scared.”

However, these fears vary between different groups, the report shows, saying: “FE students, those aged 16–17 and males are significantly less likely to feel scared. In contrast, females, those aged 50+ and students in Northern Ireland are significantly more likely to feel scared.”  

Here is where a personal approach to students’ needs is needed. Rozanna says that human contact – even via digital tools – would help allay her anxiety:

“For me, the basic need at the moment is to feel that I am on the right track and progressing. Having a personal academic tutor (PAT) or dissertation supervisor check in on me would be ideal.

Just to check in to make sure I am progressing and to offer any support, whether this be signposting to another service or recommendations to plan for this unusual time.” 

Moving forward 

One possible silver lining to emerge from this situation could be that a new relationship with technology could lead to some positive outcomes, says Chris Thomson. 

“If this transition to a greater online presence is managed well,” he says, “it could have a really big impact on people’s work-life balance in the future.” 

Kelly Housby also notes that an increased flexibility in learning environments could be a positive outcome of recent forced changes. She says:

“For some in lockdown, an online learning schedule, digital activities, and online lectures and seminars will be a welcome distraction from the pandemic.

For other students, challenges in focus, concentration, energy levels, organisation and fear will make online learning a cause of anxiety. Again, flexibility from universities will be hugely appreciated.”  

Another potential positive is the general focus that has been placed on mental health and wellbeing during lockdown, says Brad Miller:

“On the upside, in a devastating situation the fact that mental health and wellbeing is so widely discussed online of late is empowering. It’s reassuring to witness people really listening to each other.” 

You can download briefing papers on digital wellbeing for both senior leaders and practitioners from the building digital capability service website

Mental Health Awareness Week takes place in the UK between 18-24 May 2020. Join the conversation on social media using #MentalHealthAwarenessWeek.


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Towards happy and healthy students: digital wellbeing and COVID-19
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