Cambridge University researchers have called attention to the link between juvenile and adolescent mental health during COVID-19 lockdowns and computer use.
The study discovered that the end of 2020 was the most challenging period for young people, and that the mental health of those young people who did not have access to a computer tended to decline more than that of their friends who did. The study’s findings were reported in Scientific Reports.
The COVID-19 pandemic had a substantial impact on the mental health of young people, with indications of increased anxiety, sadness, and psychological distress.
People are more prone throughout adolescence to acquiring mental health illnesses, which can have long-term effects into adulthood. In the United Kingdom, children and adolescents’ mental health was already declining before to the pandemic, but the proportion of persons in this age group likely to have a mental health issue climbed from 11% in 2017 to 16% in July 2020. The epidemic resulted in school closures and a rise in online education, the effects of which were not felt equitably.
Adolescents without computer access had the most disruption: in one research, 30% of middle-class students reported participating in live or recorded school lectures everyday, but just 16% of working-class kids reported doing so.
In addition to school cancellations, lockdown frequently meant that young people were unable to see their pals in person. Online and digital forms of connection with peers, such as video games and social media, are likely to have helped mitigate the impact of these social disturbances during these times.
Tom Metherell, an undergraduate student at Fitzwilliam College, University of Cambridge at the time of the study, stated: “With access to computers, many young people could still ‘attend’ school electronically, continue their education, and keep up with friends. However, anyone without access to a computer would have been significantly disadvantaged, potentially heightening their sense of isolation.” Metherell and colleagues analysed data from 1,387 10-15-year-olds obtained as part of Understanding Society, a major UK-wide longitudinal study, to evaluate in depth the impact of digital isolation on young people’s mental health.
They focused on computer access rather than smartphone access since education is mostly done on a computer and most social contacts happen in person at school at this age.
The Understanding Society team scored participants on five areas: hyperactivity/inattention, prosocial behaviour, emotional, conduct, and peer interaction issues. They calculated a ‘Total Difficulties’ score for each participant based on this.
The researchers observed slight changes in the group’s general mental health during the length of the pandemic, with average Total Difficulties scores increasing from pre-pandemic values of 10.7 (out of a maximum of 40), peaking at 11.4 at the end of 2020, and then falling to 11.1 by March 2021. Those young people who did not have access to a computer had the greatest rise in Total Difficulties scores. While both groups of young people had identical scores at the outset of the epidemic, when adjusted for sociodemographic characteristics, those without computer access had their average scores rise to 17.8, compared to 11.2 for their counterparts. Almost one-quarter (24%) of young people without computer access had Total Difficulties scores classified as ‘high’ or’very high,’ compared to one-seventh (14%) of those with computer access.
Metherell, now a PhD student at UCL, added: “Young people’s mental health tended to suffer most during the strictest periods of lockdown, when they were less likely to be able go to school or see friends. But those without access to a computer were the worst hit – their mental health suffered much more than their peers and the change was more dramatic.”
Dr Amy Orben from the Medical Research Council (MRC) Cognition and Brain Sciences at the University of Cambridge, the study’s senior author, added: “Rather than always focusing on the downsides of digital technology on young people’s mental health, we need to recognise that it can have important benefits 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 and when a future lockdown will occur, but our research shows that we need to start thinking urgently how we can tackle digital inequalities and help protect the mental health of our young people in times when their regular in-person social networks are disrupted.”
According to the study, politicians and public health professionals must recognise the hazards of “digital exclusion” to young people’s mental health and prioritise equal digital access.