Imperial College London

Exploring the impact of COVID-19 on teen mental health

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Socially distanced teens look at smartphones

An Imperial-led project is set to explore the impact the COVID-19 pandemic on the mental health and wellbeing of adolescents in the UK.

Working with around 5,000 London teenagers, researchers will investigate risk factors for mental health problems due to COVID-19 public health measures, and the related educational and social disruption to adolescents.

It will explore what factors promote resilience to any mental health problems caused by the pandemic, and whether changes in use of digital technology, such as social media usage, during the pandemic have had a positive or negative impact on adolescent mental health.

We hope this research will provide insights into the impacts on mental health and wellbeing, but also to highlight areas and strategies for mitigating any long-term damage Professor Mireille Toledano School of Public Health

Funded by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR), the study is one of a number of projects to look at reducing the negative effects on the mental health of three at-risk groups: healthcare workers, children and younger people, and those with serious mental health problems.

Professor Mireille Toledano, Director of the Mohn Centre for Children’s Health and Wellbeing at Imperial College London, said: “For most of us, the pandemic has meant increased screen-time as we work, learn and socialise primarily through computers and mobile devices. For teenagers, opportunities for physical activity have decreased, and they have been unable to socialise with friends.

“School closures and social distancing measures are likely to have had a huge impact on the behaviour of young people. As adolescence is a period of developmental change in terms of biology and brain function, teenagers are particularly vulnerable to poor mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We hope this research will provide insights into these impacts on their mental health and wellbeing, but also to highlight areas and strategies for mitigating any long-term damage.”

Funding boost

Researchers will look at 15-17 year-olds who are already taking part in the Study of Cognition, Adolescents and Mobile Phones (SCAMP) at Imperial. SCAMP has been collecting comprehensive data on mental health, cognitive function, use of digital technology and social media, lifestyle behaviours, genetic and biological markers e.g. puberty hormones, from approximately 6,600 individuals from 39 secondary schools in Greater London since 2014, when participants were 11 years old.

The project has recently received £2.5m from the UKRI Medical Research Council to continue its work for the next five years to explore the complex multifactorial pathways that lead to poor mental health and those that promote resilience to mental health problems.

In addition to investigating risk factors for mental health problems due to COVID-19, the latest research project will investigate whether changes in use of digital technology during the pandemic have had a positive or negative impact on adolescent mental health.

The team hopes to be able to share preliminary findings from the COVID-19 research early next year and full results by the autumn.

For more information on SCAMP, visit the study website.

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This article is adapted from materials provided by the NIHR.

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Ryan O'Hare

Ryan O'Hare
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Email: r.ohare@imperial.ac.uk

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