How DSLs Can Spot the Signs of Self-Harm in Schools and Colleges

9 minute read
By Smoothwall

With Self-Injury Awareness Day taking place on 1st March, we look at the digital and physical indicators a student is at risk of self-harm and wider mental health concerns while pinpointing how technology can effectively help DSLs identify those in need of support.

Research from the charity, Young Minds* recently reported that one-in-six children aged between five and 16 identified as having a mental health condition in 2021, with 83% agreeing that the pandemic has only made this worse. Smoothwall’s own data supports this, uncovering a 71% increase in the number of ‘serious risk’ safeguarding incidents for children when compared with the previous year, along with over 5,500 serious vulnerable person alerts in 2021.

The warning signs of a young person at risk of self-harm or a mental health condition can be hidden, or visible, with the two often relating to one another. As such, in order to effectively protect young people, a joined-up approach to safeguarding is needed. This should combine both digital monitoring, and physical monitoring. Here, we explore both in more detail.

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 indicators of self-harm

Internet searches

Spotting any recent searches around depression, self-harm or suicide can be a crucial clue into a student’s behaviours and may offer early detection.

Online conversations

Students may be having discussions on online forums, social platforms or amongst peers where they share experiences of self-harm, using codenames and hashtags. Find out more about which hashtags and codenames to watch out for here.

Hateful language

A young person experiencing self-harm may often have negative feelings towards themselves. This can manifest itself as self-hate language, often typed into a word document.

Physical indicators of self-harm

Physical injuries

Children often attempt to keep self-inflicted injuries a secret. Some of the most common areas an individual will choose to self-harm include the arms, wrists and thighs. You might expect to see cuts, scars, burns or bruises.

An unexplained change in behaviour

A child who is self-harming may also show a change in their behaviour. It’s important for DSLs to pay close attention if they begin showing low self-esteem (especially if this wasn’t a problem before), are suddenly losing or gaining weight, are often tearful or unhappy, have a lack of motivation, or have begun to withdraw from their usual circle of friends.

Wearing excessive clothing

A child wanting to hide physical injuries may turn to wear more clothing than necessary. For example, seeing them wearing long sleeve t-shirts or jumpers when the weather is warmer, or not wanting to be involved in PE as it involves needing to change in front of others.

How can digital monitoring solutions help DSLs spot the digital indicators of self-harm?

We’ve talked about the visible and invisible when it comes to self-harm. Of course, changes to a student’s physical appearance are often easier to spot than an internet search or chat room message. Therefore, support is needed in the form of a digital monitoring solution.

While a school’s filtering solution will prevent students from accessing potentially harmful material in the first place, active digital monitoring will pick up on broader at-risk indicators, in real-time. Not only that but it will build up trends around individual students, connecting seemingly unrelated online behaviours.

Working with digital experts in filtering and monitoring, such as Smoothwall, can help DSLs keep an eye on students’ activity online, identifying any kind of problematic behaviours, no matter how subtle. This, in turn, means the ability to better protect children’s safety and wellbeing.

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

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