Lack of computer access linked to poorer mental health during COVID-19

The end of 2020 was the time when young people faced the most difficulties.

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The COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing social restrictions disrupted young people’s social interactions and resulted in several periods during which school closures necessitated online learning. A new study by the University of Cambridge has highlighted how lack of access to a computer was linked to poorer mental health among young people and adolescents during COVID-19 lockdowns.

The research team discovered that the end of 2020 was the time when young people experienced the most challenges and that those young people without access to a computer were more likely to experience deteriorating mental health than their peers who did.

Adolescents without access to computers had the most disruption. In one survey, 30% of school students from middle-class homes reported participating in live or recorded school lessons every day, compared to only 16% of students from working-class homes.

Lockdowns frequently meant that young people could not see their peers in person, causing schools to close. Online and digital peer engagement during these times, like that found in video games and social media, probably helped reduce the effects of these social upheavals.

Tom Metherell, who at the time of the study was an undergraduate student at Fitzwilliam College, 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.”

To examine in detail the impact of digital exclusion on young people’s mental health, scientists analyzed data from 1,387 10–15-year-olds collected as part of Understanding Society, an extensive UK-wide longitudinal survey. They mainly 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.

The Understanding Society team evaluated the participant’s responses to a questionnaire that measures common childhood psychological issues in five categories: hyperactivity/inattention, prosocial behavior, emotional problems, conduct, and peer relationship issues. Based on this, they derived a “Total Difficulties” score for each person.

Over the course of the pandemic, scientists noted small changes in the overall mental health of the group, with average Total Difficulties scores increasing form 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.

The majority of the increase in Total Difficulties scores was observed in the youth without access to a computer. When the model was adjusted for sociodemographic characteristics, both groups of young people initially had identical scores; however, those without computer access saw their average scores rise to 17.8 compared to their classmates, whose scores rose to 11.2. In the group of young people without access to computers, nearly one in four (24%) had Total Difficulties ratings that were classified as “high” or “very high,” compared to one in seven (14%) in the group with access to computers.

Metherell, now a Ph.D. student at UCL, added: “Young people’s mental health tended to suffer most during the strictest periods of lockdown when they were less likely to be able to 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“Rather than always focusing on the downsides of digital technology on young people’s mental health, we need to 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.

“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.”

Journal Reference:

  1. Metherell, T et al. Digital access constraints predict worse mental health among adolescents during COVID-19. Scientific Reports; 9 Nov 2022; DOI: 10.1038/s41598-022-23899-y