May 16, 2024

Harnessing Tech for Mental Health: Strategies for Educators and Counselors

John Burnett
A headshot of John Burnett

Technology is ubiquitous in virtually every classroom today, and its presence is enduring. While concerns exist about its potential misuse, these worries can be addressed with thoughtful integration strategies to ensure it becomes an indispensable partner in education, offering a wealth of resources to enhance student learning and well-being, fostering connection, creativity, and personalized educational experiences.

In a conversation with GoGuardian, John Burnett, Ed.S., student counselor, content creator, and founder of CounselingwithMrB LLC, shared insights into how this can be achieved.

GoGuardian: Hi John! Thanks for joining us today. Let’s start by asking what are some ways tech is currently being utilized to support student mental health within educational settings, and why is it something that should be embraced rather than feared?

John Burnett: That's a really good question. As we know, our students already spend so much time on their cell phones or other electronic devices. That's just something they're comfortable with. We have seen a rise over the last couple of years after the pandemic in anxiety, depression, and stress. We have to find innovative ways to meet their needs, especially knowing they are going to continue to use technology. But it can also be used to connect with them on their level.

One thing I’ve noticed while talking to other counselors, looking at the news, and reading articles is there have been grants that have been given by the government in the past, like Stronger Connections, that could be used to make sure schools are safer. 

Those funds could be used in different ways, such as to support hiring more counselors. 

But I've also seen people use it to get empowered mental health technology-related tools or resources, and I've just seen there's been an increase in start-up companies for things like therapy on-the-go or counseling sessions a student can simply log into on their device. They’ll submit an emoji or write about how they're doing and an AI chatbot will provide them with a resource, support system, or coping skill to help them. 

Now, of course, that's not meant to replace counselors or therapists, but it can be used as supplemental support, something to help them out.

We just have to find a way to meet them where they are. Technology is what students use at home and in their daily lives, so why not utilize that in a way that's comfortable for them?

GG: Great points. With the increasing prevalence of digital devices among students, what strategies do you recommend for promoting digital wellness and maintaining a healthy balance between screen time and mental well-being?

John: I love the word balance because it's very important to understand that even as adults we have to have balance in every area of our life, not just with technology use.

When we don’t attempt to strike this balance, it can lead to a decline in mental health. Constantly comparing oneself to others, seeking validation through social media likes or their absence, and being bombarded by notifications can cause stress, worry, or distraction, hindering focus while at school.

Here are some suggestions I provide my students with:

  1. Set boundaries: Establish specific times for screen use and non-screen activities to create a balanced routine.

  2. Practice mindfulness: Take breaks to be present and engage in activities without screens, such as deep breathing, yoga, or simply going for a walk.

  3. Limit notifications: Reduce distractions by turning off non-essential notifications on devices to minimize the urge to constantly check screens.

  4. Engage in hobbies: Pursue hobbies and activities that don't involve screens, such as reading, cooking, or exercising.

  5. Prioritize sleep: Create a screen-free bedtime routine to improve sleep quality and overall well-being. This could include putting the phone down 30 minutes before bedtime to stop the scroll.

What I always tell my students is there's not only a balance, but it’s also possible to use technology for good. You can also create things like videos, blogs, poetry, music, or any of the things you're already doing as a hobby.

GG: That’s very true. How can technology be leveraged to ensure mental health resources and support are accessible and inclusive for all students, including those from diverse backgrounds or with specific needs? How can it be used to create a culture of care?

John: One thing I've done in the past while working with a school that had one-to-one Chromebook access was I created a virtual calming corner. This contained all kinds of mental health support resources such as calming strategies, coping skills, games, and apps.

Every student has their own learning style, so I wanted to make sure I created a place where all learners could find something they could resonate with. Some people forget that not all students have internet access at home, so I wanted to make sure that while they were at school they could leverage it to get the help they needed.

Another important thing is ensuring you are providing culturally relevant resources, support systems, and coping skills that make sense for everyone. For instance, there are some things we can recommend that may not go along with a family's traditions or values. So we have to make sure we are culturally relevant and meet the needs of all of our students from diverse backgrounds. Whatever we recommend as far as coping strategies, we have to make sure families are comfortable.

One thing I've seen is some people have misinformation about specific coping skills. Mindfulness, for example. 

There’s a misconception that it comes from a certain religion or practice, and while that may have been the origin of some practices, it doesn’t mean we’re recommending students use it in that way. 

Mindfulness benefits the body and the mind, and we're not teaching students religion or how they should be living their lives. We're teaching them a strategy to make sure they can navigate the tough parts of life. 

It's always just about information and making sure students and caregivers are comfortable and knowledgeable. It has to be an open dialogue where if you have a family that has questions, they can reach out to the school or counselor or someone in the building and just get answers and feel comfortable.

GG: Just as we are, you’re there for every student, every day. As we integrate more technology into mental health support systems, what ethical considerations should educators and administrators keep in mind? How can schools ensure the privacy and confidentiality of students while utilizing technology for mental health support?

John: Confidentiality is the big thing as far as the ethical considerations. We have to make sure there are systems created to ensure privacy unless it's a crisis. 

One way to do this is instead of using names, use their student ID number or other identifier that isn’t just their name out in the open. This anonymity encourages students to use the resources available to them to ensure they come forward when they need that help. 

Sometimes a student can come in and they're just not having a good day. It doesn’t have to be connected to anything big. Maybe they just need some type of coping skill or strategy and they should be able to feel comfortable knowing they're not going to be exposed or put on the spot.

It’s a good way to get them comfortable with using resources like this because once they realize they're protected, they're going to feel more comfortable using those systems to reach out when they have a problem.

GG: How can technology be leveraged to empower students to pursue their passions while also acknowledging the potential challenges and ensuring responsible use?

John: I believe as educators and adults who are in charge of maintaining the safety of students, we have to shift our mindset. I know some people are still hesitant about technology and learning about different apps because it's very new. 

Education is evolving and changing every single year. Students are doing the same, and we have to find ways to make sure we are staying up to date with resources and strategies to ensure we are supporting students at all levels of understanding and all backgrounds.

Technology is a beautiful thing, but it does create some issues. Some students are just not at the maturity level to use it responsibly. It’s hard for them to separate reality from what's going on on their phone and be able to handle conflict. 

While there are negatives, there are many positives as well. I think sometimes we focus so much on the negative that we fail to see there are some bright spots. Again, we must find a balance and learn ways to utilize technology effectively and responsibly.

While acknowledging the complexities that come with technology, it's vital to emphasize its transformative power in promoting student engagement and mental wellness in schools. By fostering a balanced approach to digital usage and leveraging innovative tools, educators and counselors can create inclusive environments where all students can thrive. As districts navigate ethical considerations, particularly regarding privacy and confidentiality, platforms like GoGuardian serve as invaluable allies, facilitating access to resources while prioritizing student well-being. Together, we can embrace technology as a catalyst for positive change, empowering students to pursue their passions and navigate challenges responsibly.