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Online Learning and Mental Health: the XYZ generations

Today’s generation of students and teachers are battling more weighted issues than previous ones. We live in a society that now holds people to higher standards and is much more fast-paced and demanding than it used to be, which can put a lot of stress on those in education in particular. Teachers are more heavily scrutinized and asked to do more than ever before. Students as well are being pushed harder to live up to certain expectations.  Combine all of the above with the added stress of pandemic-related online or hybrid learning, and you’ve got three generations of highly stressed educators and learners struggling with mental health. Furthermore, due to generational differences, the online learning environment can make the generational gaps even more apparent, further dividing students and teachers, making it even harder for them to connect and have positive experiences .  

Online learning and mental health: understanding the Generational Divide 

Before you can understand why and how educators and students are struggling more with mental health today, it’s helpful to first understand the generational divide in regard to education. Today, teachers and students are primarily made up of those from the X, Y, and Z generations, with Gen X and Gen Y being the educators and Gen Z being the students. 
  • The connection to technology 

Though the dates can vary slightly from one source to the next, Gen X are typically those born from 1965 to 1980 (42–57 years old), Gen Y: 1981–1996 (26–41), and Gen Z: 1997–2012 (10–25). While some younger Millennials (Gen Y) might still be in college, they would likely be pursuing a master’s or a doctorate degree. But as a whole, most Millennials have now graduated and are educators themselves, along with Gen X.  The divide comes when you consider how these generations were raised in connection to technology. The differences between these current generations are considered singular and anomalous because they bridge the digital divide — reflecting the varying ways we communicate, interact, and learn. 
  • Different ideas about classroom technology

Gen X was primarily raised without technology in their younger years, so their idea of what constitutes a traditional classroom setting or learning environment is quite different from what Gen Y and Gen Z have experienced. This can create a challenge for Gen X when trying to teach and connect with Gen Z because students’ brains are now hardwired to learn differently due to their exposure to technology and the internet from birth. For example, rather than following instructions, Gen Z prefers to immerse themselves in situations and learn by trial and error, which can be frustrating when your teacher is trying to follow a more structured and traditional method.  Gen Y can also find it challenging to connect with Gen X. As teachers, they may struggle to adhere to conventional teaching methods when they know their students require something different, but they can also more easily understand where older generations are coming from. However, being placed in the “middle” can be stressful. They understand technology and want to help their students and connect with them, but they also want to be mindful of their older coworkers or employers and do what is asked of them.     
Read more: 6 Practical strategies for teaching across the digital divide

How online learning could impact the mental health of the XYZ generations

The generational gaps alone can cause a disconnect between students and teachers. So when you add in technology and the transition to e-learning in addition to all the other stressors that today’s society places on educators and learners, it can result in anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues.   Technological advancements are helping to reshape education and have made the transition to online learning possible. 

Gen X

However, older generations of educators who aren’t as tech-savvy are struggling to adapt and keep up. Trends in technology like adaptive learning tech and advanced computing are meant to improve the e-learning environment, but for some teachers, it can make it worse. Gen X is already under a lot of pressure from parents and their superiors to provide quality educational experiences, so when you add in advanced tech and a forced transition to online learning, it can be overwhelming. 
Read more: How to overcome resistance to online education in Higher Ed

Gen Y

For Millennials, the transition to online learning is still stressful but not as difficult. However, as most Millennials also grew up with technology, they hold themselves to higher standards. They know that they are capable of doing better and should, but this can be a heavy burden to carry. Just because they understand technology does not mean they are required to be perfect. Transitioning to online learning is stressful for everyone, but as Millennials are a generation that has always strived to do better, they can struggle more with mental health and anxiety from the pressure they place on themselves. 

Gen Z

The struggle to connect with their older teachers is just the tip of the iceberg for students. They are under immense pressure from their peers and parents to be their best. While technology and the internet have improved their lives and capabilities in many ways, it also puts them under a microscope of scrutiny. Because they have everything at their fingertips, they are expected to do better and be better.  These higher expectations not only cause severe stress and anxiety but it has also led to an increase in homework. Especially with the transition to online learning, students today are expected to spend twice as much time on homework as kids did in the 90s. Though many of them have adapted easily to e-learning due to their inherent connection to technology, they are struggling under the weight of high expectations and mounds of homework, which can negatively impact their mental health and their growth. 
Read more: How to confidently support independent practice in the online classroom

What to do about online learning and mental health

Though teachers and students may have different experiences due to generational gaps, they are all struggling with stress, anxiety, and mental health in their own ways as a result the high standards they are expected to live up to. To bridge this gap, students and teachers alike can practice empathy and learn to work together rather than against one another.  Teachers should be more mindful of the different learning preferences of their students while also giving themselves a break . Instead of always forcing structured learning using conventional methods, allow your students to be more hands-on. Ask them what they need and what changes you can make to improve the learning environment. Just because you’re the teacher doesn’t mean you can’t learn from your students. Help them help you.  Furthermore, students will also be more likely to “come to class” ready to learn if they are not being forced to spend so much of their time outside of school completing homework assignments. Children learn better in class than at home anyways, so keep them engaged and focused in the online classroom, but then let them be kids and have a break when they sign off. This also gives teachers a break because they don’t have to spend as much of their personal time grading homework and can instead focus on their own needs and be able to return to work the next day refreshed. 
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