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A major new UK study has found that keeping in touch via video, phone and instant messaging has done little to prevent a surge in people’s anxiety and depression during the pandemic lockdowns.
According to the study, many young people who increased their video use and exchanged messages with friends and family who couldn’t see them in person experienced deterioration in their mental health.
dr Patrick Rouxel and Professor Tarani Chandola from the University of Hong Kong analyzed data on internet use, mental health and social isolation from more than 16,000 people from four UK surveys conducted during lockdowns in 2020 and 2021. They found the following:
People who used videos or phones daily to keep in touch with family and friends outside of the home had just 3% less anxiety-depression on a scale than those who never did. People who used internet messaging services like Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp Every Day during lockdown had the same anxiety depression scores as those who never used them. People in their 20s who rarely used social media before the pandemic scored 10% higher on the anxiety-depression scale when they used it every day during lockdown. compared to their peers, who used it two to three times a week during lockdown.
“At the beginning of the pandemic, several commentators suggested that online communication modes and video technology in particular could bridge social distancing during the pandemic,” the researchers write in a paper published in Sociology.
“We found little evidence that online forms of social contact could compensate for the restrictions on face-to-face social contact during the pandemic.”
“The decline in mental health that has accompanied reduced face-to-face social contact during the pandemic has not been offset by online or telephone forms of social contact.
“Young adults who increased their online social media frequency during the pandemic experienced deterioration in their mental health. Young adulthood is a sensitive period in the life course for social relationships, with the increase in online social media footfall during the pandemic having a negative impact on mental health.”
The research also found that people whose finances had deteriorated during the lockdown had a quarter higher levels of anxiety and depression than those who hadn’t.
Researchers used data collected from: the Millennium Cohort Study of people born between 2000 and 2002; “Next Steps” on those born between 1989 and 1990; the UK cohort study of those born in 1970; and the National Child Development Study on people born in 1958. All surveys asked about anxiety and depression.
The survey covered the periods May 2020, during the first lockdown; September and October 2020, when restrictions were lifted in many places; and February and March 2021, during the third lockdown.
As the surveys only began in May 2020, the research does not measure the initial overall increase in anxiety depression when the first lockdown began in March. However, one could measure people’s reaction to subsequent lockdowns and to the end of the first and second lockdowns. The researchers found that people who had to switch from meeting friends and family away from home to online contact saw an overall increase in their anxiety-depression scores of up to 5%.
Researchers created a scale for anxiety and depression by combining responses to questions from the 2-item Generalized Anxiety Disorder question and the 2-item patient health questionnaire. The GAD-2 is a screening instrument for generalized anxiety disorder, with questions about “nervousness, anxiety, or feeling jittery” and “inability to stop or control worrying” in the past two weeks. The PHQ-2 asks about the frequency of depressed mood and anhedonia with questions about “little interest or pleasure in things” and “dejection, depression, or hopelessness” in the past two weeks.
Responses for GAD-2 and PHQ-2 ranged from 1 (not at all), 2 (several days), 3 (more than half the days), and 4 (almost every day). The mean of the four items in each wave was generated in a range of 1 to 4, with higher scores indicating greater levels of anxiety and depression. Researchers also used the Kessler scale, a quantifier of non-specific mental distress (available only in the MCS cohort). It consists of six questions about depressive and anxiety symptoms that a person has experienced in the past 30 days. Responses ranged from 1 (always) to 5 (no time). The mean of the six items in each wave was generated in a range of 1 to 5, with higher scores indicating greater psychological distress.
For more information: Patrick Rouxel et al., No substitute for face-to-face interaction: Transforming forms of social contact during the coronavirus pandemic and implications for adult mental health in the UK, Sociology (2023). DOI: 10.1177/00380385231172123
Journal Information: Sociology