Teenagers and social isolation

How might teenagers deal with being alone?
28 April 2020

Interview with 

Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, University of Cambridge


woman being reflective


There are many ways of looking at the lockdown. Generally it’s seen as a sensible way of slowing the pandemic and a buffer for healthcare systems. The downside is it’s a huge disruption to people’s lives and a big shock to the economic system. For some psychologists however, the lockdown is a vast experiment that could never be copied in the lab. And Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, who normally looks into how the brain develops during adolescence, is going to do just that. From her sunny Hertfordshire garden, with birds in the background, she explained what she’s got in mind to Phil Sansom...

Sarah-Jayne - We had been planning to start a study next academic year looking at the effects of social isolation on adolescent development and adolescent mental health. We also wanted to know how social media affects social isolation; are the damaging effects of social isolation mitigated by interacting with people online? Anyway, so that was a study that we were actually planning to do next year anyway, and then suddenly COVID-19 happened and the social distancing measures came into place all around the world. And we thought, "this is a very unfortunate natural experiment."

Phil - If it's a natural experiment, how do you go about studying it?

Sarah-Jayne - So we're going to look at this by using people's mobile phones. So asking people to log on to a mobile phone app, which then will ask them questions every few days about things like how they're feeling, whether they're happy; but we'll also be able to ask them questions about their situation, for example how many people they're living with, whether they get on with the people they're living with, whether they have outdoor space. Because if you get on with your family, then you might have a very different experience of social distancing than someone who doesn't really get on very well with their family, and has no garden and lives in a very small flat for example. But also because we're using an already established mobile phone app, we'll be able to measure things directly like what social media apps they use, their movement, their physical exercise, their sleep.

Phil - Based on what you know already, what are you expecting?

Sarah-Jayne - Well, it's such an interesting question. When we first started out planning a study, we thought, "oh my God, this is going to be terrible for young people's mental health!" But then we started to think, "well hang on a minute, young people are the biggest users of social media." So maybe use of social media apps like, you know, the apps that allow you to communicate with your friends; both in text like Snapchat, but also in video like Houseparty or Facetime or whatever it might be; maybe that will really be beneficial to young people in this time of social distancing.

Phil - Is that the case for social media generally? Because... I don't know, in my brain social media often is a contributor to worse mental health.

Sarah-Jayne - That is really interesting. So it's much more complicated than that, and it really depends on how people are using social media, how much they're using it, what apps they're looking at. I mean, I think all you have to think about is: I was a teenager 30 years ago. Imagine if there was this pandemic and social distancing 30 years ago. As teenagers we would have had no way of communicating with our friends other than a landline phone, which only one person in a family can use at any one time, and I remember that it was really expensive when we were growing up to use a landline. We would have had no other way of communicating with our friends. And that has got to be... I mean, the hypothesis is that that would have been much more harmful than now, when adolescents do have the possibility of keeping in contact. One consequence is that we really need to worry about young people who don't have access to social media, whose families can't afford WiFi, and who can't afford a mobile phone contract. And there are a lot of families in that situation in this country, and of course all around the world it's the case for most young people. Sorry about this, I'm just rescuing my chicken.

Phil - From what?

Sarah-Jayne - From the fence. Well... I mean retrieving one from the hedge.

Phil - It's like Chicken Run.

Sarah-Jayne - Oh my God, it so is like Chicken Run.


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