Washington (USA): A new study has suggested several simple, practical steps that families can take -- including reducing passive screen time and news consumption, having a structured daily schedule and getting enough sleep -- that can promote resilience against mental health problems in youth during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The findings of the study were published in the open-access journal 'PLOS ONE' by Maya Rosen of Harvard University, US, and colleagues. The COVID-19 pandemic has introduced unprecedented change into the lives of children and adolescents.
Many of these disruptions, coupled with pandemic-related stressors, are likely to increase the risk for depression, anxiety and behavioural problems in youth.
In the new study, researchers recruited participants from two ongoing longitudinal studies of children and adolescents in the greater Seattle area.
As many as 224 youth and their caregivers completed an initial questionnaire assessing social behaviours, psychopathology and pandemic-related stressors in April and May 2020; 184 of these youth and their caregivers completed a similar battery of assessments six months later, in November 2020 through January 2021.
Since data on each youth was available from prior to the pandemic, results at each time point could be controlled for pre-pandemic symptoms.
The youth ranged in age from 7 to 15 years old, were 47.8 per cent female, and their racial and ethnic background reflected the Seattle area, with 66 per cent of participants White, 11 per cent Black, 11 per cent Asian and 8 per cent Hispanic or Latino.
The number of pandemic-related stressors was strongly associated with increases in both internalising (b=0.345, p<0.001) and externalising (b=0.297, p<0.001) symptoms during the pandemic after controlling for pre-pandemic symptoms.
Early in the pandemic, youths who spent less time on digital devices (b=0.272, p=.0004), as well as those who consumed less than 2 hours of news per day (b=0.193, p=.010), had lower externalising symptoms, while greater time spend in nature was marginally associated with lower internalising symptoms (b=-0.124, p=.074).
Getting the recommended amount of sleep (b=0.-0.158, p=.080) and having a more structured daily routine during stay-at-home orders (b=-0.164, p=.049) was associated with lower levels of externalising psychopathology six months later.
Finally, the strong association between pandemic-related stressors and psychopathology was absent among children with lower amounts of screen time and news media consumption.
The authors wrote that the study identified a set of strategies that can be beneficial to families when considering how to support the mental health of their children during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
The authors added, "Mental health problems increased dramatically among children and adolescents during the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly among those who experienced high levels of pandemic-related stressors including serious illness or death of a family member, significant financial loss, and social isolation."
They concluded, "A number of simple strategies families engaged in appeared to promote better mental health during the pandemic including having a structured daily routine, limiting passive screen time use, limiting exposure to news media about the pandemic, and to a lesser extent spending more time in nature, and getting the recommended amount of sleep."