One of the core components of the International Baccalaureate Diploma is the extended essay, as our sixth form students are required to write a 4,000-research paper on a subject of their choice. This one-year deep-dive into a topic of interest develops their research and writing skills. Universities around the world often say they prefer IB candidates; one reason being this lengthy piece of work that means these students know how to write a critical essay.

Students have a love-hate relationship with this additional burden to their six IB subjects. If it connects to a personal curiosity or passion, it is usually the most successful.

Students can choose a wide range of research topics. The following are but a few that have been chosen: How Nike’s message evolved to incorporate social justice issues in the past 35 years? How did COVID-19, regulations and policies in South Korea impact restaurants during the pandemic? To what extent does sports anxiety prevention affect an elite athlete’s performance in competitive scenarios? Or to what extent did the influence of the Maltese Catholic Church lead to the failure of the Maltese Integration with the UK in 1956?

These are all worthwhile and erudite topics that each emphasise that our young people are looking at the world and wondering: why?

Universities around the world often say they prefer IB candidates; one reason being this lengthy piece of work that means these students know how to write a critical essay

The voice of students is an important and relevant insight into the world we live in. They are the leaders of tomorrow and should be empowered to be catalysts of change; doing proper research and preparing valid arguments underpins this.

One essay piqued my interest as head of school as it focused on the issue of vaping. The student focused her research on: How did the marketing a specific e-cigarette maker target teenagers, contribute towards market growth, and what were the implications?

She had noticed how socially normalised it had become for teenagers to vape. Indeed, you only have to walk into a mini-market and you see them all on display, in an array of colours, offering a spectrum of appealing sweet flavours, and affordable for a child with pocket money.

Her research shows how e-cigarette manufacturers have tapped into the social media platform, the go-to place for our teenagers, using influencers to create a “polished loop of teenagers advertising teenager use” with a stream of videos. She highlighted not only how easy it is to access vapes – a text message away on the black market – but how research shows that just like smoking used to be, it is a uniting social activity.

This becomes a vicious cycle for schools. We ban the paraphernalia and use of vaping, and we educate through regular life-skills lessons and tap into the National Student Support Services to highlight the dangers of e-cigarettes. However, it is evident that this has become a prolific problem among 13- to 18-year-olds, who are more likely to vape than smoke, with many saying they feel vaping is okay while smoking is disgusting.

Subsequently, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has recognised the influencing connection between social media and e-cigarettes, and asked for countries to take stronger action, calling out platforms such as TikTok for allowing them to be promoted and negatively influence the health of developing teenagers.

Meanwhile, schools will continue to do their part in educating young people. We recognise that this includes helping our students understand how social media is manipulating them. We invest in building their resilience, so that when peer pressure prevails, they are able to extract themselves and make the right choices, sometimes a big ask of a 14-year-old trying to fit in.

As educators, we deal not only with our students’ successes but all parts of teenage life, including, when needed, the impact of the pieces that happen behind the scenes. It is important to be realistic about 13- to 18-year-old vaping behaviours and statistics, and deal with them face on. Bold decisions are required, such as prohibiting the sale of such products near schools or stronger legal implications.

As my extended-essay student points out, Gen Z are on a customer journey map that is setting them up to be life-consumers, and she is seeing it through the eyes of a teenager. I look forward to more IB extended essays that challenge the status quo of the world we live in.


Totty Aris is head, Verdala International School.

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