Digital Vampires: Bolstering mental health during social isolation

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This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders – from around the world and all parts of society – address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. It aims to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge. Opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.

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With much of the world on stay at home orders, we are in the middle of a vast natural experiment on social isolation. What might that mean for mental health?

The changes in young people’s lives over the past ten years may give us some insight. Beginning in the late 2000s, the amount of time adolescents spent with their friends in person began to slide – and then dropped precipitously between 2012 and 2018. Whether hanging out, going to movies, or attending parties, iGen (those born since 1995) were less likely to be physically together than teens in previous eras, probably because they spent so much more time online and on social media.

Over the same period, young people’s mental health deteriorated: loneliness, depression and suicide increased, and happiness fell.

Humans need social interaction to be happy and healthy

This is not surprising: humans need social interaction to be happy and healthy. Although digital communication can help people keep in touch, it is not the same as being with others in person.

Of course, many of us are now at home, cut off from in-person social interaction with those outside our families. That does not bode well for our feelings of social connection or our mental health. In fact, a March 26-30 poll found that more than half of United States residents reported feeling lonely or isolated in the last week. Loneliness was highest among 18- to 29-year-olds, where 69% said they felt lonely, compared to 39% of those ages 65 and older.

What can we do to bolster mental health in this time of necessary social isolation, especially for young people?

"Staying apart to stay healthy": Read the OECD's key impacts report on Covid-19 Containment and Mitigation Policies.

Flattening the covid-19 peak: Containment and mitigation policies

If you’re a parent with children, teens or young adults at home, preserve and create family time – it’s the only in-person interaction available to many of us. If you hadn’t already made “a no phones at the dinner table” rule before, make one now. Look at pictures from when your kids were younger, or from your last family trip. Start a family movie night. Call relatives and put the phone on speaker so everyone can contribute.

Teens and young adults in particular would rather interact with their friends. But there are better and worse ways to do this. Favour video chat such as FaceTime or Skype – it’s the closest many can get right now to in-person interaction. Minimise social media, with its emphasis on image and popularity and its lack of resemblance to in-person conversations.

Video chat is the closest many can get right now to in-person interaction. (Image: Ioan Roman)

If any or all of this seems daunting, start with just one rule: no phones or other electronic devices in the bedroom overnight. Sleep is crucial for physical and mental health, and it’s one thing we might be able to get more of during this pandemic. However, many teens (and adults) spend the night hours on their phones or tablets – sometimes waking up in the middle of the night to use them. This is so common among teens that they have a name for it: vamping, like vampires. With school activities cancelled and no more nights out, it’s imperative we do not squander this unique opportunity to catch up on sleep.

The next few months will challenge our mental health in unprecedented ways – the last few weeks already have. But, by making the most of our social connections and the opportunity to get enough rest, we might be able to blunt the impact of the pandemic on the already fragile mental health of young people around the world.

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Related Topics

Tackling COVID-19 Child Well-being Health

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Go to the profile of Jean Twenge

Jean Twenge

Professor of Psychology, San Diego State University

Jean M. Twenge, Professor of Psychology at San Diego State University, is the author of more than 140 scientific publications and six books, the latest of which is iGen: Why Today's Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy--and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood. She holds a BA and MA from the University of Chicago and a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan.

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