Predictors of youth distress included psychosocial factors such as poorer quality of family relationships, increased screen time, and witnessing discrimination in relation to the pandemic.
Survey data from adolescents between 11 and 14 years of age found that supportive relationships with family and friends, physical activity, and better sleep habits helped to limit the harmful impacts of the pandemic on mental health, according to a press release from the National Institutes of Health.
Published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, the study used longitudinal survey data from more than 3000 adolescents. The research was based on data from the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) Study, which is the largest long-term study of brain development and child health ever conducted in the United States.
Researchers also explored predictors of perceived stress, anxiety, and depressive symptoms, and found that girls were more likely than boys to experience psychological distress during the pandemic. Other predictors of youth distress included psychosocial factors such as poorer quality and functioning of family relationships, increased screen time, and witnessing discrimination in relation to the pandemic.
“Early adolescence is a time when youth are already experiencing rapid change physically, emotionally, and socially, and the COVID-19 pandemic has caused immense disruption to this sensitive stage in life,” said National Institute on Drug Abuse Director Nora D. Volkow, MD, in the press release. “This study helps us understand how modifiable lifestyle factors affect the mental health and wellbeing of adolescents, and it can inform the development of interventions to protect youth during a major life stress. This is important now, as we continue to grapple with the pandemic, and also in future crisis response at the local or national level.”
In the study, investigators analyzed data from more than 3000 participants in the ABCD study as well as their families. The adolescents and their parents completed pre-pandemic assessments by February 2020, which documented baseline parent/caregiver reports of externalizing problems and sleep disturbances, as well as youth reports of internalizing problems, such as feeling anxious or depressed. Participating parents and youth then separately completed 3 online COVID-19 surveys, conducted between May and August 2020, which featured more than 200 items across psychosocial and lifestyle domains.
The researchers then used machine learning methods to identify patterns of positive affect, anxiety, stress, and depressive symptoms across the surveys. They then interpreted the results using an algorithm to provide an overall ranking of variables according to their importance for predicting youth mental health outcomes. The top variables were categorized into 8 domains: coping behaviors such as having a regular mealtime; physical activities; relationships; resources such as being able to afford food; screen time; sleep; and other variables.
Out of all the possible predictors considered, positive relationship variables such as discussing plans for the day with parents, participating in family activities, and predictors related to healthy behaviors were among the top predictors of high positive affect. These factors were also protective against stress, anxiety, and depression, according to the press release.
Conversely, increased screen time and witnessing racism or discrimination related to COVID-19 were found to be important predictors for negative affect. The study also found that girls and adolescents who entered the pandemic with existing mental health or sleep problems appeared to be particularly vulnerable to negative impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Focusing on what you can do to support young people, like maintaining as much of a routine as possible, walking at least 10 minutes a day, and strengthening family relationships, really matters during times of stress,” Fiona C. Baker, PhD, director of the Center for Health Sciences at SRI International, said in the press release.
The study authors noted that compared to the full ABCD study sample of approximately 11,800 individuals at entry, this study included only a subsample of 3000 youth with sufficient data from pre-pandemic assessments and COVID-19 surveys. Compared to the full ABCD study, this subsample of youth was less likely to be Hispanic/Latinx, less likely to be Black, more likely to be Asian, and their parents were more likely to have higher education. Generalizability of the study is therefore limited, according to the authors.
“This additional COVID data collection is also a valuable example of how the ABCD study team was able to effectively pivot within such a massive project, to leverage this important learning opportunity during the pandemic,” lead author Orsolya Kiss, PhD, said in the press release. “Further, machine learning techniques allowed the data itself to drive the findings, rather than expectations or hypotheses. While the team informed the structure of what data was incorporated from before and during the pandemic, the model then determined what was important.”