Impact of COVID-19 on the health and wellbeing of Australian adolescents

Study finds wellbeing impacted due to isolation

A Prevention Centre project using social media to target Australian adolescents about their health was already ‘on the ground’ in early 2020 and able to assess the early impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on adolescent wellbeing.

A new paper published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, Impact of physical distancing policies during the COVID-19 pandemic on health and wellbeing amongst Australian adolescents, finds that social isolation during the pandemic has impacted the wellbeing of adolescents in New South Wales.

The Prevention Centre team working on the project Harnessing big data and dynamic simulation modelling to tackle child and adolescent overweight and obesity and unsustainable healthcare expenditure in Australia was already ‘on the ground’ collecting data with young people.

“We were in the field, surveying for the project when physical distancing guidelines in NSW were implemented,” says Professor Andrew Page, Prevention Centre Investigator and Chair of Epidemiology in the Translational Health Research Institute at Western Sydney University.

“Clearly, there has been a significant overall impact on the physical health and wellbeing of NSW adolescents. These health and wellbeing outcomes will need to be monitored over time to help inform the best strategies to support young people and prevent longer term negative impacts.”

Sithum Munasinghe

“The physical distancing policies were implemented in March 2020 in NSW. We were already investigating changes in physical activity, dietary behaviours and wellbeing in relation to overweight and obesity among participants so we were able to pivot and look at whether there were any early impacts of these policies,” said Professor Page.

The project, which finished in 2020, recruited a cohort of young people aged 13-19 years from Western Sydney who provided responses to a series of questions on diet, physical activity, sedentary behaviour, wellbeing and psychological distress using a smartphone app.


Three authors from the paper (l-r) Sithum Munasinghe, Louise Freebairn, Andrew Page

Public health strategies in March and April 2020 included online education delivery for school-aged children, and the cancellation or restriction of extra-curricular activities. This has exacerbated the sense of disconnection from usual social interaction, a key part of psychosocial development in young people.

“Our study used a series of ecological momentary assessments (EMAs) which were returned by the user on their smartphone. But the app also used smartphone sensors to measure physical activity and screen time,” said Adjunct Associate Professor Louise Freebairn, part of the project team who was also working on ACT Health’s response to COVID-19.

“As well as providing valuable data for our project already underway, we were able to compare differences in health and wellbeing outcomes pre- and post-implementation of the physical distancing guidelines,” she said.

Following the implementation of physical distancing measures in NSW, the data showed there were significant decreases in physical activity occurring alongside significant increases in social media and internet usage. Participants’ smartphone data showed a significant increase in screen time.

“Physical distancing measures were also associated with decreases in happiness and increased time spent alone. Interestingly, there was a significant decrease in fast-food consumption, possibly due to a decrease in opportunistic purchasing of fast-food during the day,” said Mr Sithum Munasinghe, a PhD candidate working with Professor Page, and lead author of the paper.

“Clearly, there has been a significant overall impact on the physical and mental health of NSW adolescents. This project shows negative short-term health and wellbeing outcomes for young people that may link to longer term chronic disease outcomes,” he said.

“As the pandemic evolves, it will be imperative to mitigate against any longer term impact on health of physical distancing restrictions,” said Mr Munasinghe.

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Story by Helen Loughlin, Senior Communications Officer