How Did Teenagers Fare in the Pandemic?

by | Drug and Alcohol, What We're Talking About

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted people in so many ways from their health and wellbeing to relationship breakdowns and financial stress.

How did teenagers fare in the pandemic?

A new paper from the Matilda Centre for Research in Mental Health and Substance Use investigated how Australia’s pandemic measures – including lockdowns and restrictions,  impacted the health of teenagers.

The ‘big six’ are lifestyle factors that have a huge influence on your risk of developing non-communicable diseases – physical activity, diet, sleep, screen time, alcohol use and tobacco smoking.

The researchers used data from an existing study which asked young people about their health behaviours – things like how many cups of soft drink they have a week; how often they eat fast food; and whether they have smoked cigarettes in the past six months.

One drawback is that the data are self-reported – we cannot know for sure if people are remembering correctly, but previous studies have shown that for some measures at least, people do have pretty good memory recall. The data went back to 2019 and through to 2021, so the researchers could see the ‘before’ and ‘during’ effect of the pandemic. In all, more than 900 teenagers were surveyed.

The trends found over the two years were mixed. Some health-related behaviours improved – teenagers were drinking fewer sugary beverages and eating takeaway less often. And they also slept for longer, which is important as teenagers are believed to be chronically sleep-deprived.

But this sleep benefit wasn’t spread between genders equally – young girls had more sleep problems during the pandemic. Girls also increased their alcohol drinking much more than boys in the same period. Another harmful factor was screen time which also rose over the two-year period of the study.

New international research also found that school-aged girls’ mental wellbeing has been disproportionately affected by the COVID pandemic when compared with boys. Based on UK data, some of the potential reasons for the disparity could include girls may have experienced more significant changes to their day-to-day lives during the pandemic and less face-to-face interactions with friends. Further research is needed to get a clearer picture. The study was a collaboration between the University of London; RMIT University and University of Wollongong. 

More broadly, about one-third of Australians have a diagnosed long-term health condition, the nation’s 2021 census reveals, with mental health issues surpassing every other chronic illness.

The data released recently by the Australian Bureau of Statistics showed more than 8 million people have a long-term health condition, including about 2.2 million (roughly one in 12 people) who have a diagnosed mental illness.