Is social media weakening students’ sense of belonging at school?

Issue: Volume 98, Number 20

Posted: 21 November 2019
Reference #: 1HA307

The latest data emerging from PISA, the Programme for International Student Assessment, shows that a sense of belonging at school has weakened among 15-year-olds.

Almost all schools in New Zealand seek to foster in their students the value of caring for each other, of mutually supporting each other’s academic success, and of developing a sense of extended family among students. 

Students spend much of their waking hours in school and the quality of their peer relationships there – often called their ‘sense of belonging’ at school – is a central pillar of student wellbeing.

Through their interactions with their classmates every day, most students build skills in initiating, maintaining and repairing healthy relationships. These school relationships can motivate, can support students through hard times, and lay a foundation for lifelong skills in relating well to others. 

But equally and importantly, a minority of students also experience social exclusion or bullying that puts them at risk of failing to develop these relationships and skills. 

Internationally, students who feel like outsiders tend to report lower life satisfaction, according to findings from the international PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) research programme. Wider research overseas has found causal links from this kind of social exclusion at school to poorer relationships and health outcomes after leaving school.

The latest data shows that this latter group may be growing: among 15-year-olds, sense of belonging at school has weakened. That’s the principal takeaway from a new research paper based on representative data from over 70 countries from PISA. 

Fewer and fewer students are agreeing that ‘Other students seem to like me’ and ‘I make friends easily at school’ and increasing numbers are agreeing that they ‘feel awkward and out of place in my school’ and ‘feel like an outsider (or left out of things) at school’.

PISA asked a large representative random sample of 15-year-olds to what extent they agreed with an array of statements about their relationships at school and compared students’ answers to these same questions given in 2003, 2012 and 2015. 

Trends for New Zealand students

In New Zealand, the same questions about belonging have been asked in every three-yearly cycle of the PISA study since 2000. The longer-term trend shows the New Zealand students’ overall sense of belonging remained high and stable between PISA 2000 and 2009. The decline didn’t occur until around 2012 with a more pronounced decline in 2015. The timing and speed of the decline has been very similar across all ethnic groupings and between boys and girls (Figure 1). 

Crucially, the PISA data also shows that students’ opinions of teacher-student relations have stayed consistently very positive over this time. This suggests that the decline in belonging is unrelated to their interactions with teachers at school.

Overall, this decline in sense of belonging appears unrelated to learning or achievement at school. To take two of the questions for instance, feeling ‘lonely at school’ or feeling unable to ‘make friends easily’ can occur among both low and high academic achievers. In New Zealand, only one of these statements – feeling ‘like an outsider (or left out of things)’ at school – is linked with poorer learning outcomes as measured by PISA. 

The effects of social media

The decline in belonging occurred not only in New Zealand but also across most of the 30 countries with comparable data from PISA 2003 and 2015. The OECD paper hypothesises that the decline could be linked with the massive rise of mobile internet services during this period, reducing the quality and quantity of offline, student-to-student interactions, which are being displaced by online interactions. This is a theory put forward by the OECD and more data is needed to understand what’s driving this trend. 

Research also suggests that some level of device and social media use may have little negative effect and can even have positive effects on peer relationships and sense of belonging at school. Indeed, some uses are linked to a stronger sense of connection, belonging and contribution to wider communities outside of school. 

The impacts of social media appear to depend not only on how much time the student is spending on the device but also how they are using it. For instance, positive uses include using social media to actively keep in touch with family or friends, to find support or meet likeminded people, and express oneself and actively create and contribute online. 

Conversely, if it is being used for passively consuming endless YouTube videos or newsfeeds or distorted views of others’ lives, research suggests it could lower a student’s sense of wellbeing. 

What is very clear is that, at high levels of use, digital devices and social media tend to reduce the quantity and quality of offline relationships – for instance if the time they are spending on the device is crowding out a student’s offline relationships or is distracting them from their schoolwork and alienating possible study mates. 

For instance, the 28 per cent of New Zealand students in PISA who were classed as ‘extreme users’ of the internet, averaging more than six hours a day outside school hours on the internet, had much lower academic performance than students with lower internet use.

Bullying at school

In New Zealand, there also appears to be a strong connection between students’ sense of belonging in school and their experiences of bullying at school. For instance, in PISA 2015 about 48 per cent of New Zealand students categorised as ‘frequently bullied’ agreed that they feel like an outsider at school, compared to only 16 per cent who were not frequently bullied. New Zealand students tend to report a high rate of bullying and low sense of belonging relative to many other countries.

Bullying at school may be related to a breakdown in how students relate to each other and the general relational climate among their peers at school. Ergo, the negative consequences of bullying are borne not just by the bullied student but also partly by those who witness or hear about it and by the bullies. It can discourage students from trusting or socialising with other students and result in them feeling isolated and withdrawn. 

Research participation 

Schools that have used NZCER’s Wellbeing@School survey tools or have participated in a recent cycle of the PISA, PIRLS or TIMSS research studies will likely already have received data on their students’ sense of belonging. 

In early December, the OECD will also release the international findings from PISA 2018 and the Ministry of Education will publish on Education Counts a summary of our national findings, including on sense of belonging at school. 

Over 600,000 students from 79 countries and economies took part internationally in PISA 2018. Almost 6,200 of those were from the 194 New Zealand schools selected to take part. The Ministry research team who oversee PISA in New Zealand wish to extend their thanks to everyone who was involved.

Find more information on PISA on the Education Counts(external link) and OECD(external link) websites.

Resources for schools

Schools may wish to consider or revisit schoolwide strategies for building a culture of belonging for all and consider how their systems could better identify and support students at risk of social exclusion. 

To help, here are some resources for supporting wellbeing and belonging through safe, inclusive school environments. 

  • Wellbeing@School survey toolkits. Free survey tools to help schools find out what children and young people, and school staff think and feel about their school environment.
  • Te Pakiaka Tangata – Strengthening Student Wellbeing for Success. Guidelines to assist NZ secondary schools and wharekura in the provision of good practice in pastoral care and guidance counselling.
  • Positive Behaviour for Learning (PB4L) – Schoolwide. A whole-of-school framework for creating positive learning environments. Over 950 schools across the country have been trained in Tier One of PB4L. 
  • Positive Behaviour for Learning (PB4L) – Restorative Practice. A whole-of-school approach to build and maintain positive, respectful relationships across the school community.
  • Bullying-Free NZ. Information, resources and tools to help schools build a safe, caring and bullying-free environment.
  • Inclusive Education Guides. Practical guidance to help New Zealand’s teachers and educational leaders recognise, plan for and meet the learning and wellbeing needs of diverse learners. 
  • Teaching for Positive Behaviour. A resource that supports primary and secondary teachers to understand what works in improving behaviour and increasing engagement. Download support material from the PB4L site. 

Key takeaways for schools

  • Students’ sense of belonging at school – that is, their relationships and social wellbeing at school – has declined. A plausible cause is the rise in social media use displacing offline relationships. 

  • Schools could consider how they weigh up the evidence and decide policies and any restrictions for personal digital devices for their context.

  • Schools could consider how best they can support students at risk of social exclusion to develop positive relationships at school. 

  • Wellbeing is enhanced when diversity and multiple perspectives are celebrated at the same time as similarities and the things that young people have in common that help connect them are also recognised.

  • Encouraging collaboration between all students – and staff, parents and whānau – may help to strengthen a broader sense of community and belonging at school.

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 12:05 pm, 21 November 2019

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