Coping with COVID: How the Pandemic Impacted Student Mental Health, Screen Time, and Sleep Habits
Rania Sophia Lateef* and Debra Peterman**
*Charles J. Colgan High School, Manassas, Virginia, USA
**Benton Middle School, Manassas, Virginia, USA
The COVID-19 pandemic has had far-reaching and enduring effects on youth worldwide. School closures and the return to learning in virtual settings has greatly impacted academic and social functioning. The main goal of this study was to capture the effects of social isolation and virtual learning, necessitated by the pandemic, on youth sleep habits, screen time, and mental health. This study was conducted during the 2020-21 academic year, using digital surveys on primary and secondary school students in Virginia to assess screen exposure, sleep habits, and attention and mood difficulties. One in two students spent more than 4 hours on TV and digital media during the time period studied compared with only 1 in 4 students doing the same prior to the pandemic. Almost a third of students reported sleeping after 12 am on weekdays, compared with less than 10% before the pandemic. Also, there was a 6-fold increase in children who had trouble sleeping (30% versus 4.2 %) during the pandemic. Over a third of students (34%) reported fair or poor mood, during the pandemic compared with less than 14% before the pandemic. Such research highlights the need for ongoing mental health assessments and interventions as students gradually return to pre-pandemic routines.
The COVID-19 pandemic has had far-reaching effects on youth worldwide. During the first wave of lockdowns in the US, mental health-related visits for children aged 5–11 and 12–17 years increased by approximately 24% and 31%, respectively (Leeb et al. 2020). Virtual learning was instituted in the majority of educational settings and limited group recreation led to increased screen time for students, but no study clearly documented how much. Stress, increased screen exposure, and altered routines can all contribute to sleep disturbances in youth (Ludovic et al 2018; Baddam et al., 2019). Understanding the true impact of a pandemic lifestyle on student’s health and well-being is vital to considering future interventions.
Several studies evaluated the impact of school closures that occurred during the very first wave of the pandemic (February to July 2020) and found that 18% to 60% of children reported adverse mental health symptoms and health behaviors including anxiety and depressive symptoms (Viner et al., 2022). In the fall of 2020, many countries and local jurisdictions chose to continue virtual learning or hybrid learning, which included some in-person education. During the academic year of 2020-21, students were faced with the difficult task of starting a new grade level without the social, educational, and emotional support that they were accustomed to. They found themselves at home instead of in a classroom, and for many this proved to be much less conducive to learning. In December of 2020, Robert Jenkins, UNICEF Global Chief of Education, warned that “the benefits of keeping schools open far outweigh the costs of closing them, and nationwide closures of schools should be avoided at all costs.”
To characterize the unforeseen impacts on student wellbeing, this study was designed and conducted in the northern Virginia area during the 2020-21 academic year. The main objective of this project was to assess the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on student mental health, screen time, and sleep habits as they returned to school in a virtual setting, for the very first time. It was hypothesized that compared to times prior to the pandemic, students will report a lower emotional health score, more sleep disturbances, and significantly more screen time for both school and recreational purposes.
The study was conducted between the months of October 2020 and January 2021 in the northern Virginia region. Students attending elementary, middle or high school were recruited, using digital flyers and social media, to complete an online survey after informed consent and assent was obtained from the parent/guardian and student, respectively. The survey was created using Google Forms, and it included several questions regarding their mental health, sleep habits, and screen time before and after the pandemic. Elementary school students completed the survey with the help of a parent.
Survey responses were recorded by Google Forms, then tabulated and graphed using Excel.
A total of 120 students completed the electronic survey (Figures 1a and 1b). Slightly over half the respondents were male. Almost half of them were high school students and about 38 percent and 15 percent attended middle and elementary school, respectively. As shown in Figure 2, which highlights sleep habit disparities before and after the pandemic, almost a third of students reported sleeping after 12 am on weekdays during the pandemic compared with less than 10% before the pandemic. A 7-fold increase in children who had trouble sleeping (30% versus 4.2 %) was also reported during the pandemic.
Figure 2: Sleep Problems During the Pandemic
In addition, sleep problems were accompanied by trouble focusing. Figure 3 demonstrates that over 42% of students reported being moderately to very distracted during the pandemic compared with only 17.5% of students reporting this prior to the pandemic.
Figure 3: Attention Difficulties During the Pandemic
The students answered mental health questions on a 5-point Likert scale. For ease of interpretation, the top two categories and bottom two categories collapsed, and the neutral category was left as is. Over a third of students (34%) reported fair or poor “emotional health”, during the pandemic compared with less than 14% before the pandemic (Figure 4a); more than 1 in 5 students reported feeling moderately to very sad/depressed/unhappy during the pandemic which is more than twice as many before the pandemic (11.7%) (Figure 4b).
Figures 4a and 4b: Mental Health and Mood Issues During the Pandemic
Figures 5a and 5b illustrate screen time usage by students before and during the pandemic. Figure 5a shows that half of students reported 4+ hours of social media usage during the pandemic compared with less than 28% of students before the pandemic. Additionally 1 in 2 students spends more than 4 hours on TV and digital media during the time period studied compared with only 1 in 4 students doing the same prior to the pandemic (Figure 5b).
Figure 5a and 5b: Screen Time During the Pandemic
This project examined the effect of living during a pandemic on youth mental health, sleep habits, and screen time. Using self-reported data, it was found that students were suffering tremendous social and emotional consequences during the pandemic, including effects on their stress levels, sleep and screen usage.
Students had much difficulty getting to sleep and practicing good sleep habits. This was accompanied by trouble staying focused which can impact academic achievement. A meta-analysis pooled data from 177 studies (with almost all adults) and found an estimated prevalence of sleep problems regardless of gender and population was 37% during the COVID-19 pandemic’s initial stages. Difficulties with sleep were found to be associated with higher levels of psychological problems such as depression and anxiety (Alimoradi et al., 2021). When circadian rhythms are disrupted, it can affect everything from learning and memory to metabolic and cardiovascular disease (Videnovic and Zee, 2015). Thus, the findings of this study are especially relevant and problematic for youth health and well-being.
Our results indicate that perhaps due to COVID-19 associated lockdowns, screen time increased across age groups. This could be due to social media being the main way to remain connected with peers and friends and restrictions on usual recreational activities. This is concerning because light from electronic devices at night can affect our biological clocks. These changes can cause sleep disorders and research suggests this may lead to other chronic health conditions, such as obesity, diabetes, and mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety (Walker et al., 2010). The increasing use of mobile technology and social media, especially among youth, is having a profound impact on their sleep habits and circadian rhythms (Tarokh et al., 2016).
Positive mental health and well-being greatly diminished in response to the pandemic. This decline, also confirmed in the present study, could be multi-factorial. Loss of regular routines may exacerbate pre-existing mental health conditions, while children with special educational needs are at high risk for educational and social regression (Lee, 2020). Other factors contributing to poorer mental health during the pandemic include social isolation form peers, family financial difficulties, and in some cases, death of parents/caregivers (Racine et al., 2021).
Although most students have now returned to school in person, the impact of school closures is reflected in their struggles to adjust to in-person learning. All intervention and recovery efforts must be informed by studies such as this one which highlight the full extent of the COVID crisis endured by children and youth. Besides providing academic support, we must also pay heed to the social and emotional losses brought on by the pandemic and virtual learning.
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