Researchers observed slight changes in the group’s general mental health for the pandemic, with average Total Difficulties scores rising from pre-pandemic levels of 10.7 (out of a possible 40), reaching a peak of 11.4 at the end of 2020 before falling to 11.1 by March 2021.
The correlation between youth and adolescent mental health and COVID-19 lockdowns and computer access has been highlighted by Cambridge researchers.
The research team discovered that the end of 2020 was when young people experienced the most significant challenges and that those without access to a computer tended to experience worsening mental health than their peers who did.
The study’s results were made public in Scientific Reports.
With evidence of rising levels of anxiety, depression, and psychological distress, the COVID-19 pandemic significantly impacted young people’s mental health.
Adolescence is when people are especially prone to developing mental health issues, which can have long-lasting effects into adulthood. Before the pandemic, children and adolescents’ mental health in the UK were already deteriorating. Still, by July 2020, 16% more people in this age group were expected to be experiencing a mental health disorder than in 2017.
The effects of the pandemic, which caused school closures and an increase in online learning, were not felt uniformly. In one study, 30% of school students from middle-class homes reported participating in Live or recorded school lessons daily, while only 16% of students from working-class homes reported doing so. Those teenagers without access to a computer experienced the most significant disruption.
Lockdowns frequently resulted in the closure of schools and young people’s inability to meet their friends physically. Online and digital peer interactions, like those found in video games and social media, are likely to have lessened the effects of these social disruptions during these times.
Tom Metherell, a Fitzwilliam College undergraduate student at the time the study was conducted, said: “Many young people were still able to “attend” school virtually, hence continuing their education partially, and keep up with friends thanks to access to computers. However, those without access to a computer would have been at a serious disadvantage, which would only run the risk of deepening their sense of loneliness.”
Metherell and colleagues looked at data from 1,387 10-15-year-olds collected as part of Understanding Society, a significant UK-wide longitudinal survey, to examine the effect of digital exclusion on young people’s mental health. Since schoolwork can only be done on a computer and most social interactions at this age take place in person at school, they concentrate on access to computers rather than smartphones.
The Understanding Society team evaluated the participant’s responses to a questionnaire that measures common childhood psychological issues in five categories: Hyperactivity/inattention, Prosocial Behavior, Expressive Conduct, and Peer Relationship issues. They calculated a “Total Difficulties” score for each person based on this.
Researchers observed slight changes in the group’s general mental health throughout the pandemic, with average Total Difficulties scores rising from pre-pandemic levels of 10.7 (out of a possible 40), reaching a peak of 11.4 at the end of 2020 before falling to 11.1 by March 2021.
Most of the increase in Total Difficulties scores was observed in the youth without access to a computer. When the model was adjusted for sociodemographic factors, both groups of young people initially had similar scores; however, those without access to computers saw their average scores rise to 17.8 compared to their peers, whose scores rose to 11.2. In the group of young people without access to computers, nearly one in four had Total Difficulties scores that were classified as “high” or “very high,” compared to one in seven in the group with access to computers.
Young people’s mental health tended to suffer the most during the strictest periods of lockdown when they were less likely to be able to go to school or see friends, continued Metherell, who is currently a Ph.D. candidate at UCL. The worst affected were those who didn’t have access to computers because their mental health suffered more than their peers, and the change was more pronounced.
The senior author of the study, Dr. Amy Orben from the Medical Research Council (MRC) Cognition and BrainSciences at the University of Cambridge, added: “Instead of always focusing on the adverse effects of digital technology on young people’s mental health, we need to acknowledge that it can have a significant positive impact and may act as a buffer for their mental health during times of acute social isolation, such as the lockdown.
“We don’t know if or when a future lockdown will happen, but our research shows that we need to start thinking urgently about how we can address digital inequality and help protect the mental health of our young people in situations when their regular in-person social networks are disrupted,” the researchers write.
The researchers contend that policymakers and public health officials should prioritize ensuring equitable digital access and recognize the risks of “digital exclusion” to young people’s mental health.