Rapid digitization wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic means society is living more online than ever before. For young people, the overwhelming amounts of screen time coupled with the brunt of social isolation and general pandemic uncertainty can be a trigger for mental health concerns. For parents, watching their children cope with these challenges can raise more questions than answers as they wonder how they can help their children.
Enter Coffee with Marleen, a student wellness series for parents, hosted by the UTS Parents’ Association (UTSPA). Led by the calming presence of UTS social worker Marleen Constantin, the underlying goal is to help parents understand how they can best support their children during these challenging times.
“There’s this overwhelming concern among parents about social media and the children being online,” said Jennifer Davidson P '17, '21, who as an UTSPA Wellness Co-Coordinator helped plan the series, along with Dr. Rita Sachdeva P '23, '26. “Parents are extremely concerned about it because now there's no choice: everybody's online. Is it a good thing? Is it a bad thing? How do you deal with the amount of time that kids spend online, and who they're online with?”
A community collaboration in wellness
A true collaborative effort, Rita and Jennifer worked with the Wellness Team at UTS, including Marleen; Jennifer Pitt-Lainsbury, Head of Student Support and Student Innovation; and UTS Nurse Adi Sood to bring the virtual Coffee with Marleen sessions to life.
The latest sessions, held in January and February, looked at video games, social media, online chats like Discord, and YouTube under the umbrella of Digital Citizenship – Thinking About the Online Worlds of Our Kids. This aligns with the UTS strategic initiative of socially responsible digital citizenship launched in the 2020-21 school year, which aims to heighten socially responsible digital citizenship at the school by making it a topic of discussion, integrating it into classroom lesson plans, the F1 to M3 (Grade 7 to 9) guidance program and more.
“We're all concerned about how much screen time we have – whether it's ourselves or our kids and the effects of it – we just don't even know really,” said Rita.
The Coffee with Marleen sessions also aim to help parents bridge these important conversations with their children about online behavior, screen time, video games and more.
Jennifer Davidson P '17, '21, helped plan the series as an UTSPA Wellness Co-Coordinator,
along with Dr. Rita Sachdeva P '23, '26.
The ups and downs of online chat
“There is a really big positive side to be able to connect to people online and how it allows for underrepresented groups to connect to each other when they might otherwise feel alone,” Marleen told parents in the Digital Citizenship: Part 2 session, held February 2. Another example is how during classes, students who felt shy to ask about something they don’t understand might use the online chat get help from their friends.
The downside of online communications comes, she said, when people feel free to say things online they would never say to someone in person. “When this comes up with a student and parents have been called in, they are usually shocked because their child doesn’t use this kind of language at home. And so how do we arm our staff to respond to this and figure out how to help children when they are veering off track?”
Dr. Rita Sachdeva P '23, '26 helped plan the series with Jennifer Davidson P '17, '21,
as the UTSPA Wellness Co-Coordinators.
Use empathy to battle inappropriate online conversations
Teaching students how to slow down within their online conversations, and use empathy and self-awareness as tools to battle inappropriate online conversations is key, she told parents. Children are so eager to be social. They want to be part of the group. They want to have friends. In the excitement of being social, young people don’t always notice when they feel uncomfortable with something someone is saying.
“This is something we want to start with our children really early, gaining the sense when you're in a conversation, how are you feeling when that person talks? When this friend says something mean or insulting to them or says something that's really mean to someone else, how does your child actually feel about that, in that moment?”
Parents can model good behavior for their children, Marleen added. “If we hear someone say something, racist or homophobic, how are we responding? Are we modelling a response in the way that we would want our kids to respond to an online conversation?”
Set boundaries to avoid YouTube spiral
Other issues discussed include setting boundaries for healthy online activity to avoid what Marleen referred to as the “YouTube spiral” when students seeking to escape stress and anxiety lose hours watching YouTube to the point they are no longer using it for fun or to learn things. A similar spiral can happen with video games, she added.
Tell them you are always there to help, no matter what
Marleen also discussed one of parents’ greatest fears: the strangers children meet online and the tactics sexual predators use to manipulate kids, saying the most important message parents need their children to know is: “No matter what happens, you can come to me and get me to help you and the door is always open. That idea being that at any point when students start to feel uncomfortable with something going on online the knowledge that you as parents will be there for them is stronger than the guilt around something they’ve done.”
This is now, and it’s not forever
The first virtual Coffee with Marleen session on November 25 did a deep dive into social isolation and how parents can help teens develop an appreciation for what Marleen calls the bigger picture. “One thing parents can do is help their children recognize that while they might feel isolated and lonely and might feel like they are the only ones going through this, it's not a singular experience,” she says. “Also always framing it as ‘this is what we're feeling right now, but it's not it's not forever.’”
The sessions, which have been well-attended, wrap up with a lively question and answer session. While the 2020-21 school year is the first time the sessions were held virtually, the idea was underway before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, with one in-person wellness session led by Marleen, and hosted by then-UTSPA wellness session coordinator Debbie Balramsingh P '21.
The next Coffee with Marleen session is scheduled for March 2 at 6:30 p.m. on a topic that will be based on feedback and current concerns of parents. Learn more.
Jennifer described the participation and interest in the sessions on digital citizenship as phenomenal. “It speaks very much to our collective parental concerns and questions about our children’s online activity, especially during the pandemic,” she said. “We're so very grateful for the experience, skill and caring that our UTS professionals bring to the whole child wellness of our kids.”
UTS wellness support available for parents
The UTS Wellness Team including Social Worker Marleen Constantin, Jennifer Pitt-Lainsbury, Head of Student Support and Student Innovation, and UTS Nurse Adi Sood, work closely with UTS guidance counsellors. If parents have concerns about their child's mental health and wellness, they should consult with their child's guidance counsellor who will be able to direct parents and children to the right supports.