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Loneliness, COVID-19 Media Coverage, and Teen Mental Health

Isolation and pandemic media coverage are linked to teen psychological problems.

Key Points:

  • Teens may be especially vulnerable to the intense, complex grief caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
  • Teens are more likely than adults to be struggling with depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation during the pandemic, a new study suggests.
  • Loneliness and increased consumption of COVID-19-related media were both associated with a heightened risk of mental health challenges in teens.

Recently, I spoke with a teenager who'd lost a family member to the disease caused by the coronavirus. Although it's been almost a year since her grandmother passed away, she struggles to allow the strong sensations of grief to wane naturally over time.

She indicated to me that part of the reason why she continues to feel overwhelming sadness is due to the frequency of reminders about her grandmother's cause of death. These days, we can't so much as turn on the television or scroll through social media without being reminded of mask-wearing, social distancing, handwashing, and capacity regulations.

The purpose of this article is not to criticize these measures. However, I found myself hypothesizing that the near-ubiquitous reminders about sickness and death couldn't possibly be helping my client heal after her grandmother's death. And, with the COVID-19 pandemic taking so many lives, she's not alone in her loss or in experiencing the difficulty of complex grief.

How Are Teens Responding to COVID-19?

Reasoning that other adolescents must be experiencing similar stress and grief in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, I turned to the research literature to see if any quantitative information has been published about the psychological effects of experiencing a once-in-a-lifetime socio-cultural trauma at such a young age.

Indeed, a recently published (January 2021) nationwide study [4] of adolescents (n = 583) and adults (n = 4,326) confirms that the rate of "intense grief" for people who had lost a loved one to COVID-19 is 55 percent. Furthermore, while authors showed that all respondents on average were struggling to cope with the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic, adolescents showed significantly more depression, anxiety, PTSD symptoms, and suicidal ideation and behavior than their adult counterparts. In fact, for adolescent participants, 55 percent endorsed depression symptoms likely equivalent to major depressive disorder. This seems to be a massive increase from a 2017 estimate that found only 13 percent of adolescents met the criteria for a major depressive episode [1].

The Negative Effects of Loneliness on Teen Mental Health

For adolescents, loneliness, stress, poor health quality, and poor sleep quality predicted depression, anxiety, and PTSD symptoms. What's more, the number of hours spent using social media was correlated with depression and anxiety symptoms. This is potentially unsurprising given some past research suggesting a relationship between social media use and reported symptoms of depression [2].

However, Murata and colleagues [4] found something concerning. For adolescents, both loneliness and exposure to media reporting on COVID-19 were associated with depression and a higher risk for suicidal ideation and behavior. In total, 37 percent of adolescents experienced suicidal ideation, and 1.7 percent attempted suicide since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic—a saddening statistic.

Overall, the authors found loneliness to be the most statistically powerful predictor of depression, anxiety, and stress symptoms. And, since previous research with teens has shown that the duration of loneliness is more painful than the intensity of loneliness [3], the negative effects of lockdown and social distancing may grow as each day passes.

What Can Be Done?

Please do not get me wrong: I am not trying to minimize the loss of life or socio-economic effects of the pandemic. But evidence suggests that children are suffering psychologically and doing so statistically more than adults [4]. It is this author's opinion that advocates, parents, therapists, and policymakers should begin to seriously consider what steps should be taken to minimize the devastating unintended effects of countermeasures against the COVID-19 pandemic on childhood mental health. Hopefully, more research will continue to be published that provides tangible recommendations to help our young people manage this unprecedented crisis.

LinkedIn image: cheapbooks/Shutterstock

References

Bose, J. (2017). Key substance use and mental health indicators in the United States: Results from the 2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. 124, 1–62.

Keles, B., McCrae, N., & Grealish, A. (2020). A systematic review: The influence of social media on depression, anxiety and psychological distress in adolescents. International Journal of Adolescence and Youth, 25(1), 79–93. https://doi-org.ezproxy.bgsu.edu/10.1080/02673843.2019.1590851

Loades, M. E., Chatburn, E., Higson‐Sweeney, N., Reynolds, S., Shafran, R., Brigden, A., Linney, C., McManus, M. N., Borwick, C., … Crawley, E. (2020). Rapid systematic review: The impact of social isolation and loneliness on the mental health of children and adolescents in the context of COVID‐19. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 59, 1218– 1239. https://doi-org.ezproxy.bgsu.edu/10.1016/j.jaac.2020.05.009

Murata, S., Rezeppa, T., Thoma, B., Marengo, L., Krancevich, K., Chiyka, E., Hayes, B., Goodfriend, E., Deal, M., Zhong, Y., Brummit, B., Coury, T., Riston, S., Brent, D. A., & Melhem, N. M. (2021;2020;). The psychiatric sequelae of the COVID‐19 pandemic in adolescents, adults, and health care workers. Depression and Anxiety, 38(2), 233-246. https://doi.org/10.1002/da.23120

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