Study Highlights the Importance of Adolescents Having a Strong Support System Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic

A new study found that supportive relationships with family and friends, in addition to healthy behaviors such as getting sufficient sleep and exercise, appeared to protect adolescents from the harmful effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. The study was supported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), and the findings were published today in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

In this study, researchers assessed data from the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development Study (ABCD), which is the largest long-term study of brain development and child health in the history of the U.S. The study comprised of over 3,000 ABCD participants aged 11 to 14 and their families.

The adolescents and their parents completed pre-pandemic assessments February 2020, which documented  parent/caregiver reports of externalizing problems (i.e., acting aggressively, breaking rules) and sleep disturbances (i.e., sleep duration), as well as youth reports of internalizing problems (e.g., feeling anxious or depressed). Subsequently, the participants (parents and youth) then separately completed three online COVID-19 surveys, conducted between May and August 2020, which featured more than 200 items across psychosocial and lifestyle domains.

Machine learning methods were utilized to discern patterns of positive affect, anxiety, stress, and depressive symptoms across the surveys. An algorithm provided a ranking of mental health variables, and these were categorized  into eight domains: demographics; coping behaviors (i.e., having a regular mealtime); physical activities; relationships; resources (i.e., unable to afford food), screen time, sleep (i.e., pre-pandemic sleep disturbances), and other (i.e., pre-pandemic psychological problems).

According to the results, positive relationship variables, such as talking about plans for the coming day with parents, participating in family activities, and those related to healthy behaviors like physical activities and better sleep were observed to be the main predictors of high positive affect and were most protective against stress, anxiety, and depression. Conversely, the study found that increased more screen time activities (i.e. video games) as well as witnessing racism or discrimination in relation to COVID-19, emerged as important predictors for negative affect. Moreover, the researchers observed that both girls, and those who entered the pandemic with existing mental health or sleep problems were particularly vulnerable to the negative impact of the ongoing COVID 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 Nora D. Volkow, M.D., director of NIDA via a press release. “This study helps us understand how modifiable lifestyle factors affect the mental health and well-being 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.”

“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,” said Orsolya Kiss, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow at SRI International and lead author of the study. “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.”