Research Snapshot: Psychological adjustment and stress among adolescents during the initial COVID-19 crisis

What you need to know

By surveying students in Ontario in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers were able to establish a preliminary understanding of teens’ stress levels and their relationship to daily activities and levels of depression and loneliness. Among their findings, they discovered that time spent on social media was associated with higher levels of psychological distress and that time with family may serve as a buffer against depression and loneliness in the context of COVID-19.

 

This Research Snapshot is based on the article “Physically isolated but socially connected: Psychological adjustment and stress among adolescents during the initial COVID-19 crisis,” which was published in the Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science in 2020. Read it below or download the PDF.

Research Snapshots are brief, clear language summaries of research articles, presented in a user-friendly format.

What is this research about?

In the early stages of the global COVID-19 pandemic, the Ontario government put a number of measures in place to prevent the spread of the virus, which included closing schools and encouraging physical distancing. The impact of these measures on the mental health of those in adolescence, a critical developmental stage, was worrisome yet unknown. For this reason, researchers at Western University set out to explore teens’ stress related to COVID-19 and its relationship to their daily behaviours and other indicators of psychological distress. 

What did the researchers do?

The researchers surveyed 1,054 Ontarians between the ages of 14 and 18. They recruited participants through social media in April 2020, about three weeks after schools closed due to the pandemic. The survey included questions about stress related to COVID-19, loneliness and depression and time spent with family, using social media, consuming news, doing schoolwork and being physically active.

What did the researchers find?

The researchers found the following: 

  • Respondents reported high levels of concern about the pandemic, especially its impact on schooling and peer relationships, with only 2% of respondents reporting no depressive symptoms.
  • Measures of COVID-19 stress were significantly associated with depression and loneliness, especially for teens who spent more time on social media.
  • Spending more time connecting virtually with friends, while associated with less loneliness, was also associated with higher levels of depression.
  • Time with family was associated with less depression and less loneliness.
  • Physical activity was associated with less loneliness and time spent on schoolwork was associated with less depression.
  • For teens with depressive symptoms, it may be important to monitor how they are using social media and the extent to which their online relationships are supportive.

How can you use this research?

Parents and mental health service providers can use this research to understand the implications of the pandemic and physical distancing measures on teen mental health. They can also use it to help determine effective coping strategies for buffering the negative outcomes of the pandemic on teens.

Limitations and next steps

Since the survey was done very early in the pandemic, it’s possible that respondents had not yet established routines reflective of longer-term adjustments to physical distancing and that the scale used may not be the most reliable measure of COVID-related distress. The sample of teens may have been skewed by the recruitment method, with participants more likely to be frequent users of social media and more likely to be Caucasian females than the broader population. The research is also based on the assumptions that the teens surveyed were following physical distancing guidelines. Finally, it’s worthwhile to note that the directions of the discovered relationships remains unclear and that effect sizes were in the medium range, with much of the variation in psychological adjustment unaccounted for.

More research is needed to establish longitudinal trends and to confirm the direction of the discovered relationships (i.e., causality). The researchers suggest that using a daily diary approach in future research could provide more detailed findings. 

About the researchers

Wendy E. Ellis1, Tara M. Dumas2, Lindsey M. Forbes3

  1. Department of Psychology, King’s University College at Western University
  2. Department of Psychology, Huron University College at Western University
  3. Department of Psychology, Western University, and Independent Practice, London, Ontario, Canada

This Research Snapshot is based on the article “Physically isolated but socially connected: Psychological adjustment and stress among adolescents during the initial COVID-19 crisis,” which was published in the Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science in 2020. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/cbs0000215

This summary was written by Emma Firsten-Kaufman.