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Increases in teenagers’ wellbeing during school closures

Last week research from the University of Bristol released a report on young people’s mental health during the covid-19 pandemic. Dan spoke to lead author Emily Widnall to explore the research findings.

1. What were the key findings of this study?

We found a variety of student mental health experiences but overall we found reductions in anxiety and rises in wellbeing but no large changes in depression. Interestingly, we saw larger improvements in mental health and wellbeing for students who had poor mental health and wellbeing before lockdown. Students also reported feeling more connected to school during lockdown but we did not see much change in how connected young people felt to their peers or family.

2. What did you do?

Students were participants of an ongoing NIHR School for Public Health Research survey study exploring social media use and adolescent mental health and wellbeing. They had already completed a baseline survey pre-pandemic in October 2019. Due to the pandemic, resultant lockdown and school closures, it was really important to understand how young people had been affected by these changes. Participants were contacted by their schools in April/May 2020 during lockdown and invited to complete a similar survey online.

3. Students with low-wellbeing pre-pandemic had a meaningful increase in wellbeing – what do you think is going on here?

This study provides a unique insight into how many younger teenagers feel without the day-to-day pressures of school life. This particular finding suggests that those who had low-wellbeing pre-pandemic may have been protected from some of the usual drivers of poor mental health when not attending school, resulting in increased wellbeing during lockdown. This could be due to the removal of stressors within the school environment such as pressure of academic work and challenging peer relationships. This certainly raises questions about the role of the school environment in teenage mental health and wellbeing.

4. The notion of ‘connectedness’ was related to some interesting findings, can you say a bit more about this?

Yes so a really interesting finding was that young people reported feeling more connected to their school during lockdown. This finding indicates that some of the measures put in place by schools during lockdown were successful at nurturing connectedness, perhaps schools have found new ways to engage with students, for example 1:1 time via digital platforms.

Hopefully schools can continue new measures that worked well during lockdown when returning to school. Another key finding was that students with low school, peer and family connectedness pre-pandemic, saw the biggest improvements in mental health and wellbeing during lockdown.

5. What was the picture with regards to social media?

Girls reported using social media much more during the week in comparison to pre-lockdown. Over half (55%) of girls reported using social media for more than 3 hours a day during the week. There was little change for boys weekday use.

Interestingly nearly 60% of girls also reported using social media more for schoolwork in lockdown in comparison to before the pandemic. The fact that many of our participants were able to stay in touch with friends and wider family via social media may help explain why we did not see an overall increase in poor mental health and wellbeing.

6. What are the key limitations of these findings?

It’s important to remember that this is one school year group (Year 9s aged 13-14). It is possible that the impact of school closures on the mental health and wellbeing of other age groups, for example younger children who did not have access to social media, or those who experienced disruptions to transitions or to exams, may have been different.

Similarly this survey was conducted in schools across the South West of England so we need further research in different areas to be able to generalise findings across the UK.

When thinking about sample representativeness, our lockdown survey had lower proportions of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) students, students receiving free school meals and students with a long-term illness or disability in comparison to those who took part in the survey pre-pandemic in October 2019. Further research is therefore needed to more fully understand the experiences of these groups of students.

Read the full report, research briefing and infographic.

About Emily Widnall

Emily is a Senior Research Associate in public health at the University of Bristol. Her background is in mental health research and her particular research interests include adolescent mental health and school-based interventions.

View all posts by Emily Widnall

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