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Psychological stress and substance abuse among youth during the initial phase of COVID-19 examined by Huron and King’s faculty

Jon Munn, Director, Marketing and Communications
Jul 21, 2020

New COVID-19 situated research, examining the habits of 1000 Ontario teenagers during the early days of the pandemic, shows high levels of stress and worries about topics such as school and the pandemic itself, which caused feelings of loneliness. Social isolation was especially troubling for youth with did not feel popular with their peer groups.

According to the research, these feelings manifested in teens engaging in substance use during the pandemic in multiple contexts including alone (49.3%), virtually with friends (31.6%) and even face-to-face with friends despite warnings not to congregate (23.6% of sample).  While the frequency of teens’ alcohol and cannabis use increased since the pandemic began, the frequency of binge drinking or cannabis use did not.

The work was conducted by Dr. Tara Dumas, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Huron, and Dr. Wendy Ellis Associate Professor of Psychology at King’s University College. They have published their findings in two papers: “Physically isolated but socially connected: Psychological adjustment and stress among adolescents during the initial COVID-19 crisis” in the Canadian Journal of Behaviour Science looks at how young people are adjusting to the restrictions surrounding COVID-19 and its associated social distancing practices. A second paper, “What Does Adolescent Substance Use Look Like During the COVID-19 Pandemic?” is in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

Empowered by funding from a SSHRC Insight Development Grant, the two researchers had previously studied social media and adjustment earlier this year. They were in the midst of collecting data at Ontario schools when everything changed. Realizing the profound impact of social distancing on teenagers, these researchers re-designed their work and began two studies to examine the effects of the initial COVID-19 restrictions on adolescents. In early April, they collected data from more than 1,000 Canadian teens via online surveys.

These papers are among the first published works on predictors of adolescent mental health during the pandemic. During this unprecedented time, the research has important implications that have the potential to (re)shape how families are supporting their young people, as well as community awareness and service delivery.

“Life during social isolation is so vastly different than what teens typically experience. They have lost out on interacting with friends and in peer contexts. Also, beyond the more general stressors that came with the pandemic including finances and fears about contracting the virus, teens also have unique stressors revolving around school, graduation, future plans and their social lives,” shares Dr. Tara Dumas, Huron Professor. Both researchers are Developmental Psychologists, so they were interested to know how teens would respond to these added stressors.

In the first study (Ellis, Dumas & Forbes, 2020), researchers found that adolescents are very concerned about the COVID-19 crisis and reported levels of stress were related to heightened depression and loneliness.

  • 43% of teens said they were “very concerned” about the pandemic. 72% reported being “very concerned” about the impact on their school year and over 40% were “very worried” about feeling connected to their friends.
  • Researchers also measured how teens were spending their time in those early weeks of the pandemic. Since schools closed, 48% reported spending more than 5 hours per day on social media and 12% reported spending more than 10 hours per day.  Social media use was related to greater depression but not loneliness.
  • Teens also reported on the frequency of connecting with friends online and spending time with family. Around 50% of teems reported spending between 1-2 hours a day texting or video chatting with friends. Time connecting to friends was related to less loneliness, but also higher depression.
  • 40% of teens reported spending more than one hour a day with parents and siblings. But this time with family protected against feelings of both loneliness and depression, beyond the level of COVID-19 stress teens were experiencing.
  • Finally, despite low levels of physical activity reported by teens, there was a protective effect of exercise on reported loneliness. 

“These findings highlight promising ways to ameliorate feelings of loneliness among teenagers during social isolation, for example, spending time with family, time connecting to friends and engaging in physical activity. At the same time, it is important to be mindful of teen’s online activities, including social media use and the supportiveness of virtual connections, especially in relation to depressive symptoms,” explains Dr. Wendy Ellis, King’s University College.

The second study (Dumas, Ellis, & Litt, 2020) looked at how COVID-19 related stress was related to teens’ adjustment, including their substance use.

The results of their study included the following:

  • Canadian teens are engaging in substance use during the pandemic in multiple contexts including alone (49.3%), virtually with friends (31.6%) and, shockingly, face-to-face with friends (23.6% of sample).
  • The frequency of teens’ alcohol and cannabis use has increased since the pandemic, but not the frequency of binge drinking or cannabis use.
  • Increased COVID-19-related fears and depression were associated with a greater likelihood of solitary substance use while concerns for how social distancing would affect peer reputation was associated with a greater likelihood of face-to-face substance use, particularly among teens who felt they had low popularity among peers.
  • Teens have real concerns about what social distancing from friends will do to their relationships and reputations, this appears to have consequences for adherence to social distancing practices, particularly among teens who don’t feel popular.

“It’s important, I think, for parents to be aware if their teens are using substances alone, it may be a sign they are struggling with COVID-related fears or depressive symptoms,” Dr. Dumas explains.

Dr. Ellis adds that the researchers were somewhat shocked by the findings of such high levels of stress. “For adolescents, the effects of this stress is worrisome. During the teen years, there is an increasing desire for autonomy, peer connection and risk-taking behaviors, all of which may be hindered when they are forced to physically distance from friends,” she says.

In terms of broader implications and next steps, Dr. Dumas shares it will be important to continue to track teen adjustment during the pandemic. This is especially true because this research project reflects the realities of teens within the early stages of COVID-19 social distancing, and they will experience new – and renewed – stressors as the situation evolves.

About Huron University

For more than 150 years, Huron University College has challenged students to be Leaders with Heart. With a focus on providing a well-rounded Liberal Arts education, Huron strives to be the best strategically small institution in Canada. The Huron experience equips students with the tools to be agents of change who receive faculty mentorship and unparalleled research opportunities from day one.

Learn more about Huron

For media interviews, contact:

Jon Munn

Director, Marketing and Communications

jmunn4@uwo.ca

519.521.4890