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‘Please let some students turn their webcams off in class,’ says Oxford Priory psychiatrist

As the reopening of schools is delayed indefinitely, except for vulnerable children and children of key workers, an Oxford child psychiatrist has spoken about the mental health effects on some highly anxious children of attending online classes via Zoom or similar tele-conferencing platforms.

In the face of the current pandemic, teachers have had little alternative but to migrate their teaching environments to Zoom and other platforms. While schools have adjusted to a new way of teaching, students have had to adjust to a new way of learning. Some children however, with mental health issues, have asked that they be allowed to turn their camera off during class.

Priory child and adolescent psychiatrist Dr Hayley van Zwanenberg said this type of request had come from students in a variety of circumstances - and mandatory video policies were not always appropriate.

Dr van Zwanenberg, who sees young patients at the Priory’s Oxford Wellbeing Centre, said: “During this lockdown, many schools are asking young people to have their webcams on for lessons.

“This is different from previous lockdowns, and understandable from the teacher's viewpoint - they need interaction and feedback. Many young people engage well with this, and enjoy seeing classmates, but there are others who find this extremely anxiety-provoking.

“As a psychiatrist, I have been asked to write a number of letters for young people excusing them from having cameras on. These requests most frequently arise from the mid to older teen age group. Teenagers spend a lot of time reflecting deeply about themselves and searching for a sense of identity. Until they feel happy with this, they can really struggle with self-esteem and often feel anxious about their behaviour - even just how they sit and move.

“To the anxious student, not confident in themselves, being on a webcam in front of their peers highlights everything they worry about regarding themselves to every peer in their class. When physically in the classroom, they may sit feeling awkward or self-conscious and wondering if another person is watching them. During online schooling, they wonder if every peer is watching them. These young people often have a fear of embarrassing themselves, so there is an additional fear of then being asked a question over their mic and getting it all wrong.”

Dr van Zwanenberg’s advice:

If having the webcam or mic on is causing anxiety for a young person with mental health conditions:

  1. Listen and validate how they feel. Let them know many people feel the same
  2. Discuss with them that in a class of 30, not all images will be on the screen at one time. Most young people will be thinking about their work or their own image rather than looking at others. If a pupil focuses on listening to the teacher, they may well forget they are on screen. Some young people will be able to challenge their anxieties with this sort of evidence, but other young people may still feel overwhelmed
  3. If the young person is still feeling overwhelmed, ask them if it might be easier to have the webcam on in some lessons (they may feel less worried with certain peers than others), or if they could have it on for the first 5 minutes of a lesson to help them start with some gradual exposure and build it up slowly at a rate they feel comfortable
  4. If webcam usage still remains overwhelming for the young person, they may benefit from school being informed and accessing some assistance to help them develop self-esteem and social confidence. Some young people have very high levels of anxiety that impact their daily functioning, and, for them, cognitive behavioural therapy can be very helpful. For others, parents can help build young people's confidence with simple strategies such as noticing and praising specific abilities, refraining from negative comments, and role modelling how to manage situations young people feel they have a skills deficit in
  5. Teachers can focus on the young person's work screen, if they are able to see them, and use chat functions to check individuals are understanding concepts, and encourage the young person to ask questions over written private chat

At the moment, primary and secondary schools are expected to provide remote learning until at least the February half term. These dates can vary depending on where you live, but for most it is from Monday 15 – Friday 19 February, which means schools are expected to be closed for at least six weeks.

Speaking last week, Boris Johnson said that the Government’s priority was to get pupils back in the classroom “as soon as possible”.

However, he added that whether this would happen after half-term in the middle of next month depended on a “number of things”, meaning that schools may not reopen immediately after February half-term. Medical chiefs say schools should be the “last to close and first to open”.


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The Priory Group is the leading provider of behavioural care in the UK, caring for around 30,000 people a year for conditions including depression, anxiety, drugs and alcohol addiction, eating disorders and self-harming. The Group is organised into four divisions – healthcare, education and children’s services, adult care and the Middle East.

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