University of Cambridge researchers have found that lack of computer access was linked to poorer young people and adolescent mental health during COVID-19 lockdowns.
The COVID-19 pandemic had an unprecedented effect on mental health across all age groups. However, young people and adolescent mental health was hit significantly as they were ill-equipped to deal with the uncertainty. Evidence revealed rising levels of anxiety, depression, and psychological distress during COVID-19 and this was accompanied by general vulnerability to developing mental health disorders, adolescents struggled significantly.
In the UK, the mental health of children and adolescents was already deteriorating before the pandemic, but the proportion of people in this age group likely to be experiencing a mental health disorder increased from 11% in 2017 to 16% in July 2020.
The Cambridge researchers analysed how lack of computer access impacted adolescent mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic. The results of their study are published in Scientific Reports.
Young people faced greater disruption during COVID-19
The pandemic resulted in the closure of schools and an increase in online schooling. Adolescents without access to a computer faced greater disruption with one study finding that 30% of school students from middle-class homes reported taking part in live or recorded school lessons daily, whilst only 16% of students from working-class homes reported the same.
Furthermore, lockdowns often meant that young people could not meet their friends in person. This led to young people using online and digital formats to interact with their friends, which likely reduced the impact of social disruptions and poorer adolescent mental health.
Tom Metherell, who at the time of the study was an undergraduate student at Fitzwilliam College, University of Cambridge, said: “Access to computers meant that many young people were still able to ‘attend’ school virtually, carry on with their education to an extent and keep up with friends. But anyone who didn’t have access to a computer would have been at a significant disadvantage, which would only risk increasing their sense of isolation.”
How did the pandemic affect adolescent mental health?
The researchers examined the impact of digital exclusion on adolescent mental health, Metherell and colleagues examined data from 1,387 ten to 15-year-olds. They focussed on access to computers, not smartphones, as schoolwork was completed mostly on a computer.
The participants answered a questionnaire to assess common childhood psychological difficulties. They were scored on five areas: hyperactivity/inattention, prosocial behaviour, emotional, conduct, conduct and peer relationship problems. The researchers used this data to create a ‘Total Difficulties’ score for each individual.
Throughout the pandemic, the researchers saw small changes in adolescent mental health during the study. The Total Difficulties score changed from pre-pandemic levels of 10.7 (out of a maximum of 40), peaking at 11.4 at the end of 2020 before decreasing to 11.1 by March 2021.
However, young people with no access to a computer saw the largest increase in their Total Difficulties scores. Both groups had similar scores at the start of the pandemic; however, those without computer access faced the worst adolescent mental health with an average score sitting at 17.8, compared to their peers whose scores increased to 11.2. Almost one in four (24%) young people in the group without computer access had Total Difficulties scores classed as ‘high’ or ‘very high’ compared to one in seven (14%) in the group with computer access.
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 about 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.”