The effects of lockdowns on young people can go both ways: two seemingly contradicting studies

The bottom line of most studies I’ve seen on the effects of the pandemic is that the existing differences between people have become bigger. That’s also how you can explain two seemingly different results in two new studies.

On the one hand, we have this UK study by company STEER Education summarized in TES:

  • Girls aged 11 are now 30 per cent more likely to suffer from poor mental health than boys of the same age. By the time girls reach 18, they are now more than twice as likely to experience poor mental health than boys of the same age.

  • Increasing numbers of girls now go to great lengths to conceal signs of distress, making it harder for teachers and education staff to identify and help them. Unhealthy perfectionism and extreme self-control are also far more common. While 20 per cent of secondary schoolgirls had these traits before the pandemic, an alarming 80 per cent do so now.

  • The pandemic appears to have affected girls’ mental health much more severely than boys’: girls are now 33 per cent more likely to experience poor mental health compared with those of the same age as them before the pandemic. In contrast, boys are 12 per cent more likely to do so.

  • Compared with 2018, both boys and girls are now 40 per cent less trusting of others, 25 per cent less likely to take risks and 25 per cent less able to choose an appropriate and measured response to life’s everyday challenges.

One could say that this study is done by a company for which this bad news, is actually good news, as the company delivers an online assessment tool for schools to alert them about students at risk of mental health issues, but the results are in line with several studies we’ve seen in other countries and we’ve seen over and over again that girls on average have it worse than boys when it comes to mental wellbeing.

Except… this second study by Emma Soneson, a PhD student and Gates Scholar at the Department of Psychiatry, University of Cambridge. and colleagues. This study describes how one in three young people say their mental health and wellbeing improved during COVID-19 lockdown measures, with potential contributing factors including feeling less lonely, avoiding bullying and getting more sleep and exercise.

Both studies examined the same population, had similar sample sizes (15000 versus 17000), used the same kind of self-report, but did have different timing. The second study happened in June/July 2020, during the tail end of the first national lockdown in the UK, while the first study used responses from students in 92 state secondary schools in online surveys that were taken at least twice a year, and mostly every term, from before the start of the pandemic to December 2021. One can imagine that halfway through 2020 a lot of students still thought the pandemic would be over soon.

So there can be a lot of reasons why the results seemingly contradict each other, but I don’t think they do that much. If a big part of the young people in the UK has it worse now it doesn’t mean that another big part has it better. As said in my intro: often the existing differences between people have become bigger during the pandemic.

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