Attending classes online was more stressful than in-person or hybrid instruction for college students early in the COVID-19 pandemic, and teens who learned online reported poorer mental health and lower school satisfaction and academic performance, according to two new studies.
12% of online students report no socializing
In a study published yesterday in JAMA Network Open, a team led by Harvard Medical School researchers analyzed nationwide data on full-time undergraduates at 4-year US colleges from the online, biannual American College Health Association-National College Health Assessment III survey from January to early June 2021. The team measured stress with the Kessler Screening Scale for Psychological Distress.
Among 59,250 participating students, average age was 21.2 years, 68.1% were women, 51.5% were White, 61.2% attended only online classes, 35.3% attended a hybrid of in-person and online classes, and 3.5% attended only in person. Most (64.1%) participants reported a high level of food security. Nearly one-fifth (19.7%) reported having a current anxiety disorder, and 15.9% said they were depressed.
A total of 28.5% participants lived on campus, while 37.3% lived off campus with family, and 34.2% lived in another off-campus situation. About half (49.4%) reported socializing for 6 or more hours a week, 41.1% of students did so for 1 to 5 hours a week, and 9.5% did so for 0 hours.
Students attending fully online classes had the lowest levels of socialization, with 12.3% of reporting no socializing, compared with 5.4% of those attending mixed-format classes and 3.4% of those attending only in-person.
Participants who were fully online reported more psychological distress than hybrid and in-person students (b = 0.76), an association that stayed significant after controlling for geographic region, year in school, sex, race, food security status, current anxiety/depression, COVID-19 concerns, residence status (on campus, off campus with family, or other off-campus) (b = 0.18) and time spent socializing with friends (b = 0.13).
The study authors noted that, in addition to remote learning, pandemic lockdowns also precluded normal college experiences such as extracurricular activities, internships, study-abroad opportunities, service learning, and social events. Students who attended classes only online, they said, may have struggled with limited access to the internet or technology, which could have negatively affected their academic performance.
"In addition, those taking courses online may include students living at home during the first year of the pandemic," they wrote. "Students' residence—whether with peers or family—may predispose them to different socialization experiences or levels of distress."
Mental health professionals, the researchers added, need to consider the link between such social determinants and mental health in their clinical approach.
"The findings of this study suggest that mental health professionals may wish to consider the association of course delivery models with mental health outcomes when working with college students," they wrote. "Colleges should be aware of the mental health burden associated with attending fully online classes and consider possible in-person components and supports for students."
Transgender, non-conforming youth vulnerable
A similar study led by University of California (UC) Davis researchers assessed instruction mode-related school satisfaction and academic success, social connection, mental health, and media use among 1,256 14- to 16-year-olds during the 2020-2021 school year. The research was published on Oct 27 in PLOS One.
Relative to remote learning, in-person attendance was associated with greater school satisfaction and success, stronger feelings of social connection and inclusion, less anxiety and depression, and less problematic media use.
The authors noted that participants appeared to use media to facilitate social connection when attending virtual classes, but they also had higher rates of problematic media use in those situations.
"While adolescent youth are adept and frequent media users, and report using media for social purposes, in this instance in which so much of their in-person social connection was lost, social media and gaming do not appear able to provide a protective mechanism enough to compensate for that loss," they wrote.
The school year was particularly problematic for those attending school virtually and for transgender and gender-nonconforming (TGNC) youth.
"It is critical that we recognize that all youth are not returning to school with the same consequences of the pandemic, and that resources need to be in place to specifically support TGNC youth and those who were studying virtually at the end of last year, particularly around social connection and mental health," lead author Drew Cingel, PhD, said in a UC Davis news release.