Youth without access to a computer had worse mental health during the pandemic
Adolescents (youth between the ages of 10 and 24) are particularly vulnerable to the development of mental health disorders. Essentially, this is because our brains aren’t fully developed until the late teens. These mental illnesses that begin in adolescence can continue well into adulthood.
The COVID pandemic has added to already troubling trends in the mental health of children and youth. In 2021, the UK’s Royal College of Psychiatrists warned that record numbers of those under the age of 18 were referred to mental health services during the pandemic.
Adolescents have a greater need for social interaction than adults, so one theory is that “social deprivation as a result of physical distancing may explain this increase in mental health problems among young people. But most teens weren’t totally isolated from their friends at the height of the pandemic. By 2020, half of UK 10-year-olds and 95% of 13-year-olds he had his own mobile phone. Therefore, digital technologies could have kept even worse mental health trends at bay.
My research colleagues and I were particularly interested in how computer access might be related to mental health among adolescents during the pandemic. In our recent studywe found that youth without access to a computer faced poorer mental health during the early days of the COVID pandemic.
We use data from the UK Longitudinal Household Survey, also known as understand society. The Understanding Society has followed members of almost 40,000 UK households since 2009. During the pandemic, until September 2021, they also sent questionnaires to 10-15 year olds every one to two months.
In the youth survey, mental well-being was assessed using something called the strengths and difficulties questionnaire. This questionnaire includes 25 statements that young people rate as “not true”, “somewhat true” or “certainly true” about themselves. Among other things, this allows us to calculate a “total difficulties” score, which represents the degree of mental difficulty. Health difficulties faced by the interviewee.
But we cannot simply compare the average total difficulty scores of adolescents with and without computer access. Consider, for example, that young people with access to computers are likely to come from wealthier homes. A disadvantageous economic environment is linked to worse mental health, so the group without computer access is likely to have poorer mental health and therefore higher scores. But this does not prove that it is computer access itself that is related to mental health.
To avoid this issue, we focused instead on how youth total difficulty scores changed during the pandemic (as of March 2021). Using this longitudinal approach, we could build models that separate out the influences of factors such as income and ethnicity on mental health. Therefore, we can say with more confidence that the differences we see are related to computer access and not to other factors.
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Based on data from 1,387 children ages 10 to 15, we found that those adolescents who did not have access to a computer had substantially worse mental health than those who did. According to our adjusted model, the average total difficulty score peaked at 11.2 (out of 40) for those with computer access, but 17.8 for those without.
To put those numbers in context, a score of 18 or higher is considered abnormally high, meaning the respondent likely has a mental health condition. In our model, nearly one in four (24%) of the group without access to a computer exceeded a score of 18 at some point during the pandemic, compared to one in seven (14%) of those with access to a computer .
Guarantee digital access
It makes sense that teens without access to a computer seem to have been at higher risk for mental health problems during the pandemic. A computer could help young people maintain some kind of routine. They could use it to access online education and socialize through video games and social media.
When a major event like the pandemic makes it difficult for young people to keep up with their usual social networks, digital access can prevent them from becoming isolated. However, we must also take steps to ensure that these young people do not become vulnerable to online damage in the process.
In our document, we call on policy makers, health services and researchers to pay more attention to the risks of lack of digital access. Future world events, and not just pandemics, may once again cause widespread social disruption among young people. By ensuring as many as possible have the means to connect digitally, we may be able to protect some of these young people from mental health issues.