By Jill Chappell for Our Children Magazine, Fall 2019
Social media and internet use is an unavoidable part of our children’s lives. From smart phones to tablets, TV to video games, and even wearable technology, there’s growing concern about the effect ever-increasing screen time is having on their mental health. That’s why mental health literacy is a critical component of a child’s education.
It’s a need that’s being addressed by Halifax non-profit Family SOS through its comprehensive online safety and mental health program, Kidz Connect. The course is proudly supported by the Mental Health Foundation of Nova Scotia through our Community Grant program.
“Kidz Connect provides our children with vital information that will have a positive impact on their daily lives,” says Mental Health Foundation of Nova Scotia President and CEO Starr Cunningham. “Not only does this program benefit the mental health of young Nova Scotians, but it helps eradicate the stigma surrounding mental illness and addiction.”
Kidz Connect was first launched in 2012 and continues to reach more children each year. This year the program visited 60 classrooms, reaching more than 1200 students throughout the Halifax Regional Centre for Education. The goal is to increase mental health literacy by educating children about mental health and online activity.
“Mental health is tied into every aspect of our programming plus we do one full session on mental health,” says Kidz Connect program facilitator Kimberly Drisdelle. “We talk about how the internet can be good, and bad for your mental health. We talk about the ways in which screen time is good and can be used for self-care or as an outlet, and then the ways it can be destructive.”
The interactive course provides six hours of programming over two to three weeks. The sessions include the latest information about online safety fundamentals, online etiquette, cyberbullying, healthy screen use, and mental health. Each session incorporates hands-on activities and games which resonate with students. Like one activity which compares getting rid of personal information online to getting toothpaste back into a tube.
“Thank you for teaching me how to be safe on the internet,” says Kidz Connect participant Summer. “My favourite activity was the toothpaste one because it was really like the internet. You post a bad picture, it spreads, you try to get it off but it won’t come off.”
Kidz Connect also focuses on basic human emotions. Students learn it’s okay to be sad, nervous or angry sometimes and how to recognize when these feelings become a bigger problem. They explore positive mental health practices, self-care and the importance of fresh air, exercise and healthy food. Students are often so engaged in the curriculum, they’re disappointed to see it come to an end.
“I learned a lot from what you’ve been teaching us. I wish you could stay longer,” says Kidz Connect participant Megan. “Now that I know the internet is not as safe as it seems, I’ve told a trusted adult my password and make sure my personal information is locked and safe from other people.”
The feedback from schools has been overwhelmingly positive with all teachers surveyed requesting the program be delivered on an annual basis. The demand illustrates the very real need for mental health education.
“The presenter had a very good rapport with the students and was knowledgeable about the content of the program and how to work with students,” says one teacher. “[Kidz Connect] is a great program with really important content.”
Thanks to Community Grant funding from the Mental Health Foundation of Nova Scotia, Family SOS expanded Kidz Connect this year. It implemented a full-time program facilitator and enlisted a consulting agency to update curriculum to reflect 2019 digital trends. The organization was also able to offer the program to everyone on their waitlist, plus additional schools, improving the lives and mental health literacy of hundreds more young Nova Scotians.