Using data from a UK-wide longitudinal survey, the study investigated the mental health impact of digital exclusion during the pandemic
“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." Dr Amy Orben, programme leader at the Medical Research Council (MRC) cognition and brain sciences unit, University of Cambridge
Teenagers with no access to a computer during the Covid pandemic experienced markedly worse mental health than those with access, new research has found.
Research had already found that the proportion of children and adolescents experiencing a mental health disorder increased from 11% in 2017 to 16% in July 2020, possibly as a result of the social isolation experienced during lockdown.
Schooling was also disrupted, but the effect was more marked on those without a computer. One study showed that 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.
Tom Metherell, at the time an undergraduate student at the University of Cambridge and now a PhD student at UCL, decided to examine the impact of digital exclusion on the mental health of young people. He and his colleagues analysed data from 1,387 10-15-year-olds collected as part of Understanding Society, a large UK-wide longitudinal survey. Their findings were published in Scientific Reports.
Participants completed a questionnaire that assesses common childhood psychological difficulties, which allowed the Understanding Society team to score them on five areas: hyperactivity/inattention; prosocial behaviour; emotional; conduct; and peer relationship problems. From this, they derived a Total Difficulties score for each individual, scored out of 40.
Over the course of the pandemic, the researchers noted small changes in the mental health of young people, with average Total Difficulties scores increasing from pre-pandemic levels of 10.7 to 11.4 at the end of 2020. The scores dropped to 11.1 by March 2021.
The largest increase in Total Difficulties scores was among young people with no access to a computer. While both groups of young people had similar scores at the start of the pandemic, when modelled 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 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.”
He 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, programme leader at the Medical Research Council (MRC) cognition and brain sciences unit at the University of Cambridge, and senior author on the study, said: “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.”
It seems to be a commonplace that spending too much time online is bad for young people’s mental health, and while we should be concerned about the possible harms caused by social media, it’s also important to recognise the benefits of digital access. As this study shows, during the pandemic young people who did not have access to a computer experienced significantly worse mental health effects than those with access. This may have been a consequence of not being able to carry out school work, or because of increased social isolation. There is a real concern that, even outside the pandemic, children without access to a computer to carry out homework may fall even further behind their peers. Making sure that all school students have access to a computer should form a part of the government’s future educational strategy.