Teenagers are feeling increasingly nervous, lonely and worried about the future, according to survey data released on Tuesday by the country’s largest school board.

Students’ emotional well-being has deteriorated since the last student and parent census five years ago, Toronto District School Board director of education John Malloy said at a news conference on Tuesday. “We have to acknowledge it, and we have to do something about it,” he said.

The census included more than 220,000 completed surveys, including 46,070 from a new, younger bracket of students in Grades 4 to 6, who were included for the first time. The survey also included students from Grades 7 to 12 and parents of children from junior kindergarten to Grade 6.

The results from the youngest respondents paint a picture of how students’ lives and perspectives on school change as they move through grades. Fewer students in older grades report feeling supported, or feel like they belong at school, compared with their younger counterparts.

“I’m hearing this from the students, so I’m not surprised,” Dr. Malloy said.

Twenty-two per cent of high-school students are feeling lonely often or all the time, compared with 16 per cent in 2012. More are losing confidence; 41 per cent of high schoolers are constantly or often nervous or worried, versus 15 per cent of students in Grades 4 to 6, and 49 per cent say they’re under “a lot” of stress and pressure. Just 58 per cent of high schoolers were hopeful about their futures, down 4 percentage points from 2012.

Karim Ouazzani Touhami, a 17-year-old senior at Toronto’s Jarvis Collegiate Institute, said he’s seen that stress increase first-hand. “We’re juggling eight courses, we’re doing the functions and the calculus and AP [Advanced Placement] biology, and it’s good for the future, but at the same time we are really stressed,” he said. “There’s pressures at home, telling us, ‘You have to make it, you have to become a doctor’ … I haven’t been out to relax in weeks now.”

Another Jarvis senior, Rebecca Trinh, said the pressure from social media compounded expectations for young women. “Girls should dress like this, and girls should have curves and everything, and wear makeup to school,” she said. “That’s hard to hear. We can’t be ourselves.”

While only 6 per cent of boys and 7 per cent of girls in Grades 4 to 6 report being on social media “almost constantly,” that number leaps up by high school. Thirty-eight per cent of high-school girls, and a lesser 26 per cent of high-school boys, report that they’re on social media almost constantly. While 43 per cent of high schoolers reported regular physical activity in 2012, just 32 per cent reported the same in the most recent census. Grade 7 and 8 students went from 58 per cent with regular physical activity down to 43 per cent.

The decline in emotional well-being with age is more significant in middle- and high-school girls, the survey shows, and students who identify as LGBTQ2S report feeling worse emotionally across age groups. While younger survey participants overwhelmingly reported that their teachers cared about them – 90 per cent said they felt that way all the time or often – connectedness faded with age. Nearly half of high schoolers felt they didn’t have a single adult at school they could turn to for help, whether a teacher or other staff member.

On the positive side, most parents reported feeling confident in the system where their kids are learning. Students across age brackets largely reported feeling safe in their classrooms and school buildings.

Gordon Flett, director of York University’s LaMarsh Centre for Child and Youth Research, said the results from Toronto are “totally consistent” with what he and his colleagues see countrywide. “It’s particularly alarming the number of young people who talk about having anxiety, and the sense of pressure,” Dr. Flett said in an interview. “When you talk about the hopelessness part, that’s quite significant … when people lose hope, that’s when everything is amplified.”

The Globe and Mail, November 13, 2018