In the fight to contain the spread of Covid-19 people around the world are facing unprecedented restrictions including the removal of many sources of face-to-face social connection. What lasting impact will this have on adolescents? This is the question researchers sought to answer in ‘The effects of social deprivation on adolescent development and mental health’, published online last month on The Lancet Child and Adolescent Health.

Social interactions are proposed to be a basic human need, analogous to other fundamental needs such as food consumption or sleep [Image: Freepik].

Describing adolescence as representing a sensitive period for social interaction, the authors (Dr Amy Orben, College Research Fellow at University of Cambridge; Dr Livia Tomova, Postdoctoral Fellow in Cognitive Neuroscience at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Prof Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, Professor of Psychology at the University of Cambridge) examined literature from a variety of domains that highlighted how social deprivation in adolescence might have far-reaching consequences.

“Social interactions are proposed to be a basic human need, analogous to other fundamental needs such as food consumption or sleep,” they said. “Indeed, feeling insufficiently connected to others is associated with profound and lasting negative consequences on physical and mental health, even leading to increased mortality.”

REVIEWING THE EVIDENCE

“We discuss evidence that human adolescents are hypersensitive to social stimuli and to the negative effects of social exclusion, and review animal models that show extreme forms of social deprivation, including complete social isolation during adolescence, which have damaging effects on brain and behavioural development.

“This global crisis has, however, struck at a time when many adolescents are well positioned to mitigate some of these social shortfalls using digital means of connection.”

With this in mind the researchers combined interdisciplinary scientific findings relating to adolescent social processing, social isolation, and digital social behaviours. “We also highlight how adolescents might be particularly affected by social deprivation, especially the reduction of peer contact, and how this must be considered when considering the long-term consequences of global COVID-19 prevention measures.

ADOLESCENTS & SOCIAL MEDIA

“Studies on adolescent social behaviour show that core components and qualities of adolescents’ face-to-face interactions, including information disclosure, interactivity, social reward, and social support, are present when communicating online. Online communication has been shown to remediate negative feelings after social exclusion. Evidence for the ability of digital communication to mirror face-to-face contact effects extends to neuroimaging studies of human brain correlates of social processing.”

Sighting the difficulty of separating “the unique effects of social media and digital technology from the noisy background of adolescent life,” the authors said it was challenging to give evidence-based recommendations beyond promoting common sense approaches. “However, the existing evidence shows that certain aspects of digital communication can engender social connection and might, therefore, mitigate the consequences of physical distancing. The authors stressed that research should focus on this possibility.

MORE QUESTIONS THAN ANSWERS

“It is unknown how long the physical distancing measures will be in place and whether or how they will affect development and mental health in the longer term. Even if physical distancing measures are temporary, several months of physical distancing represents a large proportion of a young person’s life during a sensitive period of development, so it is possible that the effects will be more potent than for adults,” the authors warned.

“Furthermore, there is little understanding on how the consequences of physical distancing compare with other stressors experienced by adolescents during the Covid-19 crisis, including economic pressures, uncertainty, and the loss of public events marking key life stages and rites of passage.”

CONCLUSION

“Adolescents are at a unique period in their lives when the social environment is important for crucial functions in brain development, self-concept construction and mental health.” While recognising adolescents’ use of digital technologies and social media might mitigate some of the negative effects of physical distancing, the authors called for ‘an increased sensitivity during the Covid-19 response to the needs for adolescents, for whom peer interaction is a vital aspect of development’.