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Self-harm and young people – how digital monitoring can be key to help DSLs identify those most at risk

With Self-Injury Awareness Day taking place on 1st March, we look at the troubling rise in self-harm in young people, and the important role that digital monitoring technology can play in helping DSLs spot the warning signs at the earliest stage.

A recent study* has revealed that self-harm among young children has doubled over the last six years, and is continuing to rise at an alarming rate.

Research from charity, Place2Be** shows a similar trend, with one-in-six children aged between 5 and 16 identified as having a mental health condition in 2021. That’s five children in every classroom.

While the underlying causes of self-harm and broader mental health conditions can be complicated, it is thought that academic pressures, and problems such as bullying and a rise in online risks, are all potential contributors.

Not only that but the profound impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on young people’s mental health is also thought to play a role. Smoothwall’s own digital monitoring data supports this, as every 37 minutes, we helped DSLs identify a seriously vulnerable child.

Against this context, DSLs within schools and colleges can – and should – play a crucial role in spotting those most at-risk from self-harm from the earliest stages, ensuring they provide students with the valuable support they need.

However, this is not always an easy task.

Helping DSLs detect those early warning signs

At the best of times, it can be difficult for DSLs to spot the subtle signs of those suffering from mental health conditions.

Self-harm – often an incredibly private and personal experience – can be even tougher for DSLs to detect. While a physical approach to safeguarding can reveal factors such as unexplained injuries or behaviour changes, many of the warning signs remain invisible. In today’s technology-first age, a purely physical approach to safeguarding is no longer enough.

However, another way in which DSLs can detect the early signs that a child may be at risk is by looking for digital behaviours that may show signs of vulnerability or distress. It is often a young person’s use of technology that reveals the necessary clues first.

For example, this could include internet searches about self-harm or suicide, discussions within online chat rooms or forums to share experiences, looking at social media sites that glamorise self-harm and suicide or expressing self-hate language in text documents.

To expect staff to ‘manually’ monitor technology usage is somewhat unrealistic. For example, students are likely to shut down inappropriate content or conversations when a staff member walks past. Similarly, classroom configurations mean it’s not always possible for a teacher to have sight of every student’s screen.

Furthermore, to cope with children using devices in multiple locations throughout the school, a robust handover and communication would be needed between teachers in order to flag any concerning online behaviour and spot trends.

Support is therefore needed for DSLs, and this is where digital monitoring can provide tremendous value. It can help identify indicators in real-time that a child may be at risk, as well as build up data and pick up on subtle trends that the human eye may miss.

While there’s no substitute for a teacher’s intuition, technology can help support this traditional approach to safeguarding, and make the invisible, visible.

Digital monitoring solutions for schools and colleges

So, how does digital monitoring work in such a discreet context?

While a school’s filtering solution will prevent students from accessing potentially harmful material in the first place, proactive monitoring will pick up on broader at-risk indicators, in real-time.

For example, this might be a student using their keyboard or screen in any way to view, message or type out their feelings – even if the message was never sent or the document was never saved. It doesn’t matter – the risk is still captured.

Trends can also be identified, even if the problematic activity was several days or weeks apart. For example, this might be an internet search, followed by a chat room conversation or a typed-and-delated self-hate letter.

While students with any kind of mental health conditions often suffer in silence, monitoring helps pick up subtle – but significant – digital behaviours and can often show the signs that pupils have not been able to express out loud.

It’s worth mentioning, monitoring can bring to light any concerns that may be affecting students, from the earliest stages, including not only self-harm but broader factors such as cyberbullying, depression, grooming, radicalisation, gang involvement, and knife crime to name just a few.

Any digital behaviour which is then considered to be of concern will flag to an appropriate safeguarding officer and allows for the child to be provided with the necessary support to ensure their welfare before it’s too late.

Helping schools and DSLs utilise their resources more effectively

Safeguarding young people in 2022 has never been more challenging. Blended learning, 24-7 internet and social media use, and greater demands on teachers’ time combine to create the perfect storm.

However, if schools are armed with the right tools, digital technology can help DSLs to utilise their resources more effectively.

Working with digital experts in filtering and monitoring, such as Smoothwall, can help DSLs work smarter, not even harder. It can help them keep abreast of students’ activity online, identifying any problematic behaviours, no matter how subtle. This, in turn, provides the ability to better protect children’s safety and wellbeing.

Interested in the benefits digital monitoring offers?

If you’re new to digital monitoring, Smoothwall’s free ‘Complete Guide to Monitoring in Education’ whitepaper is available to download here.

Alternatively, click here to book a free Monitor walkthrough and Q+A session with one of Smoothwall’s friendly monitoring experts.



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