The COVID-19 pandemic and resulting social restrictions disrupted young people’s social interactions and led to several periods when school closures necessitated online learning. A new University of Cambridge study has revealed how lack of access to a computer is linked to poorer mental health among young people and adolescents during the COVID-19 lockdowns.
The research team found that late 2020 was the time when young people experienced the most challenges and that young people without access to a computer were more likely to experience declining mental health than their peers.
Adolescents without access to computers had the most disruptions. In one survey, 30% of students from middle-class households said they attended live or recorded school lessons every day, compared to just 16% of students from working-class families.
Lockdowns often meant young people were unable to see their peers in person, leading to the closure of schools. Online and digital peer engagement during these times, as found in video games and social media, has likely helped lessen the impact of these social upheavals.
Tom Metherell, who was a student at Fitzwilliam College, University of Cambridge at the time of the study, said: “Access to computers meant that many young people were still able to ‘visit’ school virtually, continue their education to some degree and keep in touch with friends. But anyone who didn’t have access to a computer would have been severely disadvantaged, which would only add to their sense of isolation.”
To examine in detail the impact of digital exclusion on young people’s mental health, researchers analyzed data from 1,387 10-15 year olds collected as part of the Understanding Society, a comprehensive UK longitudinal study. They mainly focused on access to computers and not smartphones, since most of the school work can only be done on the computer, while at this age most social interactions take place in person at school.
The Understanding Society team evaluated participants’ responses to a questionnaire that measures common childhood psychological problems across five categories: hyperactivity/inattention, prosocial behavior, emotional problems, behavior, and peer relationship problems. Based on this, they derived a Total Difficulties score for each person.
As the pandemic progressed, the scientists noted small changes in the group’s overall mental health, with average overall difficulty scores increasing from pre-pandemic levels of 10.7 (from a maximum of 40) and peaking in late 2020 at 11.4 before he down to 11.1 by March 2021.
Most of the increase in overall difficulty was observed among adolescents without access to a computer. When the model was adjusted for sociodemographic characteristics, both youth groups initially had identical values; However, the average grades of those without computer access rose to 17.8 compared to their classmates, whose score rose to 11.2. In the group of young people without access to computers, almost one in four (24%) had an overall difficulty rated as ‘high’ or ‘very high’, compared with one in seven (14%) in the group with access to computers.
Metherell, now a Ph.D. Student at UCL, added: “Young people’s mental health tended to suffer most during the most severe lockdown periods, when they were less likely to be able to go to school or see friends. But those without access to a computer were hit the hardest — their mental health suffered much more than their peers, and the change was more dramatic.”
dr Amy Orben of the Medical Research Council (MRC) Cognition and Brain Sciences at the University of Cambridge, senior author of the study, added: “Rather than always focusing on the downsides of digital technology for young people’s mental health, we need to recognize that it has important benefits and can serve as a buffer for their mental health during times of acute social isolation such as lockdown.
“We don’t know if and when a future lockdown will happen, but our research shows that we urgently need to think about how we can address digital inequalities and help protect the mental health of our young people at a time when they are are regularly personal social networks are disrupted.”
- Metherell, T. et al. Restrictions on digital access predict poorer mental health of adolescents during COVID-19. scientific reports; November 9, 2022; DOI: 10.1038/s41598-022-23899-y