In a report issued by the University of Cambridge, research has shown a link between the lack of computer access during the COVID-19 pandemic leading to poorer mental health in those aged 19 and under. The report highlights the connection between being online and the effects that can have on young people’s mental health in our technology-dependent modern lives.
A lack of computer time can lead to mental health issues
Cambridge University researchers have highlighted how lack of access to a computer was linked to poorer mental health among young people and adolescents during COVID-19 lockdowns. The team found that the end of 2020 was when young people faced the most difficulties.
Furthermore, the mental health of those young people without access to a computer tended to deteriorate to a greater extent than that of their peers who did have access.
The COVID-19 pandemic had a significant effect on young people’s mental health. Evidence gathered by the team suggested rising levels of anxiety, depression, and psychological distress in adolescents in particular.
Adolescence is when people are particularly vulnerable to developing mental health disorders, which can have long-lasting consequences into adulthood. In the UK, the mental health of children and adolescents was already deteriorating before the pandemic.
However, 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, at the height of the first lockdown.
The effects of being in lockdown on the young
The pandemic led to the closure of schools and an increase in online schooling, the impacts of which were not felt equally. According to the University of Cambridge research, adolescents without computer access faced the most significant disruption.
In one study, 30% of school students from middle-class homes reported taking part in live or recorded school lessons daily, while only 16% of students from working-class homes reported doing so.
In addition to school closures, lockdowns often meant that young people could not meet their friends or socialize. During these periods, online and digital forms of interaction with peers, such as through video games and social media, are likely to have helped reduce the impact of these social disruptions.
According to Tom Metherell, who was part of the research team from the 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.”
Details of the study
To examine the impact of digital exclusion on young people’s mental health, the team analyzed data from 1,387 10–15-year-olds collected as part of Understanding Society, a sizeable UK-wide survey.
They focused on access to computers rather than smartphones, as schoolwork is largely possible only on a computer, while at this age, most social interactions occur in person at school.
Participants completed a questionnaire that assesses common childhood psychological difficulties, which allowed the Understanding Society team to score them on five areas –
- Prosocial behavior;
- Emotional problems;
- Conduct issues; and
- Peer relationship problems.
The team subsequently derived a ”Total Difficulties” score for each individual from these areas. Throughout the pandemic, the team noted small changes in the overall mental health of the group, with average scores increasing from pre-pandemic levels of 10.7 (out of a maximum of 40), peaking at 11.4 at the end of 2020 before declining to 11.1 by March 2021.
What the research showed
Those young people with no computer access saw the most significant increase in their Total Difficulties scores. While both groups of young people had similar scores at the start of the pandemic, when modeled with adjustment for sociodemographic factors, those without computer access saw their average scores increase to 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.
Metherell, commenting on the research’s findings, states,
“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 that rather than always focusing on the downsides of digital technology on young people’s mental health, we should recognize 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.
Although no one knows if and when a future lockdown will occur, the research shows that we should 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.